Gardenhire bill to bring Tennessee school voucher program to Hamilton County clears committee

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / State Sen. Todd Gardenhire speaks at a breakfast with Hamilton County's legislative delegation and county leaders ahead of the legislative session on Jan. 27 at the Construction Career Center.

NASHVILLE — A bill sponsored by state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, to include Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee’s private school voucher program for low-income students is headed to the Senate floor after clearing the Education Committee on a 6-3 vote.

Gardenhire and other Hamilton County legislators voted in 2019 to remove the local school system from Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account initiative. The program allows state and local tax dollars to follow low-income students when their parents or guardians choose to send them to private schools. Vouchers are now worth about $8,100 per student.

“Senate Bill 12, in summary, just adds Hamilton to the ESA pilot program, and no other counties but Hamilton County is added to it,” Gardenhire said in presenting his bill.

There was little discussion on the measure with Senate Democratic Leader Raumesh Akbari of Memphis saying she would vote no.

“And the reason why is our pilot program that’s already been put in place. I don’t think there’s even enough to see if it will be successful,” Akbari said, adding that she was opposed to it in Shelby County and Nashville, as well.

In order to get the law passed in 2019, Lee had to cut deals with the GOP-dominated General Assembly to let them opt out of all systems except the Metro Nashville and Shelby County school systems. It also limits the number of vouchers statewide to no more than 15,000. Fewer than a thousand students statewide so far have enrolled through the program in the two districts.

On Wednesday, Gardenhire said based on figures from Shelby County and Nashville, few parents in Hamilton County will sign up. He estimated parents or guardians of only 100 to 175 low-income students in Hamilton County would seek to qualify.

The latest figures show the state has received 1,273 applications with 747 of those coming out of Shelby County and another 467 from Metro Nashville. At this time 643 applications have been approved.

“I didn’t have common core math,” Gardenhire said, “but I don’t think you can calculate a percentage that low to do it. That is a point zero, zero,” he said, calling the participation rate a “minuscule” amount.

Joining Akbari in voting against the measure was Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald. Another Republican, Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, did not vote, leaving six Republicans voting for the bill, which has not started moving in the House.

The House bill is being carried by Education Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, with Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, as a co-sponsor. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, is a Senate co-sponsor. Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg, R-Kingsport, is the Senate bill’s primary sponsor.

Gardenhire, a longtime voucher proponent, said at the time he opposed Lee’s bill because he was not sure it would pass legal muster. The program has since survived court challenges.

Gardenhire said students applying would have to be enrolled in a public Hamilton County school.

“They have to be already in the district school,” he said. “They can’t be at a private school later and say, ‘Hey I want my money.’ There’s all sorts of caveats to that.”

He also said affected counties have a three-year guarantee of no losses in state funding due to students entering private schools through the program.

Steve Doremus, a spokesman for Hamilton County Schools, said in an email that the system is following the bill and other education legislation.

“In the meantime, we continue to have ongoing dialogue with our legislative delegation on a variety of education issues,” he said.

Jim Wrye with the Tennessee Education Association, which represents several public school teachers and staff, said many of the families of students who’ve said they will use the program never intended to attend public schools.

“So this is a new cost that is going to come to Hamilton County,” he said. “And the ESA is not only the state and local match on the funding formula, but includes all dollars that the county has raised for public schools. And so we believe this will be a new cost to Hamilton County taxpayers.”

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.