Opinion: As first Hamilton County students take advantage of Education Savings Account, Gardenhire realizes long-held desire

AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey / State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, asks a question during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Nashville.
AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey / State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, asks a question during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Nashville.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has been in office for nearly 11 years, but he's been supportive of school voucher-type programs for much longer.

With the beginning of a new school year in Hamilton County, low-income parents here are able for the first time to use state-funded educational savings accounts to send their children to private or parochial schools.

"I like vouchers; I've liked them a long time," Gardenhire said during the 2013 debate in the state legislature, according to newspaper archives. "You know, you got to look out for the kids first, let them choose, let the parents choose, and then the market will take care of itself."

Twelve Hamilton County private schools are participating in the educational savings account program, which was initially passed for Shelby County (Memphis) and Davidson County (Nashville) in 2019, finally cleared court scrutiny in 2022 and was expanded to Hamilton County this spring.

Participating schools are Avondale Seventh-day Adventist, Berean Academy, Bethel Christian Academy, Brainerd Baptist, Chattanooga Christian, Grace Baptist Academy, Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, Notre Dame High, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Silverdale Baptist Academy, Skyuka Hall and St. Jude.

The savings accounts allow eligible students $8,756 to be used as tuition, or for a variety of other education-related expenses, at the 12 schools.

The amount covers the full tuition at some schools, like Berean Academy where the cost for K-12 students is $6,750-$7,000, but not at others, like Chattanooga Christian, where the cost for K-12 students is $12,500-$16,700. Parents have to make up the rest at those schools.

To date, Grace Academy has enrolled nearly half of the 136 Hamilton County students in the program, most of whom are returning students to the school. Grace does not publish its tuition cost on its website, but the online site Private School Review lists the K-12 tuition in its 2023 profile of the school from $8,050 to $10,300.

We have long believed that if voucher-type programs are able to boost the educational opportunities for even a few students, they are worth it for those students. Obviously, though, there is a point of diminishing returns. If when the state comptroller starts issuing reports on the efficacy of the program in 2026 it is not deemed successful, legislators should return to the drawing board.

But we feel confident many students will benefit, where they may not have in their struggling public school.

Gardenhire began his recent push for a voucher-type program en route to his first state Senate election in 2012.

"There is something wrong somewhere," he said that year. "And it's no sense punishing the children and saying you have to keep going to a failing school."

Every subsequent year until the savings accounts passed, Gardenhire either sponsored a bill offering them or backed a bill that did.

Gardenhire in 2013 told parents at a legislative forum that vouchers were the only way out of low-achieving schools for some kids.

"My rationale for vouchers," he said, "is if you've got a kid trapped in a failing school and they need to go somewhere else or they want to go somewhere else, this is their ticket to go."

Gardenhire's 2015 bill, the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act, passed the Senate but did not clear the House.

"It puts pressure on the accountability of the local school district to finally help these students who are low-performing," he said of his bill, which was initially limited to 5,000 students in Hamilton, Davidson, Shelby and Madison counties but could have grown to 20,000 students.

In 2016, after then-Gov. Bill Haslam's vouchers bill passed the Senate but not the House, Gardenhire said improved schools would make vouchers unnecessary.

"If county districts don't want to have vouchers available to them," he said, "the best way to do it is to have a good school system without priority schools. If a school system can't do the job right, you can't punish the parents for wanting a better education for their children."

Gardenhire's 2017 vouchers bill, a five-year pilot program limited to poor students living in school districts ranking in the bottom 5% of state students, failed in committee.

Tuesday, as the first Hamilton County students enrolled in the program prepared to begin school, the third-term legislator recalled his initial attraction to such programs began back in the 1970s when he was part of the organization Young Americans for Freedom.

"Giving a parent the opportunity for the best education possible [for their children] is a fundamental right for us in America," Gardenhire said. "Everybody can't afford private schools, but they still pay taxes. Why are we discriminating against them? In the end, it's about the children."

He said the number of Hamilton County private schools participating in the program is "more than I thought" and includes "good, quality schools."

Gardenhire also said he's eager for "continued conversations" about whether and how to expand the program.

"We'll see what happens," he said. "I just hope I'm around long enough to see how the fruits of this come out."

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