Tennessee Senate approves expansion of school voucher program to Hamilton County

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Sen. Bo Watson, right, comments on issues raised during an education forum in Red Bank in January 2022. Listening at left is Sen. Todd Gardenhire.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Sen. Bo Watson, right, comments on issues raised during an education forum in Red Bank in January 2022. Listening at left is Sen. Todd Gardenhire.

NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee Senate has approved legislation expanding the state's education voucher program into Hamilton County, which would allow low-income families to use public tax dollars to send their children to private schools willing to accept the annual $8,100 vouchers.

Nineteen Republicans voted in favor of Senate Bill 12, and six Democrats voted no. Another eight Republicans either voted present or didn't take part in Thursday's vote. The measure now goes to the Republican-controlled House.

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who described to Senate colleagues how in 2019 he and fellow local lawmakers agreed to keep Hamilton County Schools out of Republican Gov. Bill Lee's Education Savings Account bill.

"I want to give the parents and the students the opportunity to have a choice and not be trapped in failing schools," Gardenhire told senators. "Whether you like the ESA bill or not, it's here and passed its legal challenges."

(READ MORE: Gardenhire bill to bring Tennessee school voucher program to Hamilton County clears committee)

Gardenhire, a longtime proponent of vouchers, described how he and bill co-sponsor Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, as well as other Hamilton County legislators agreed to remove Hamilton from Lee's 2019 voucher bill.

That was because they had been assured by county school officials at the time that a 2017 program local lawmakers helped the system establish to address failing schools still needed time to work, Gardenhire said. The program was created to prevent five failing schools from being forced into the state's Achievement School District.

The three-part plan established a partnership zone with a community advisory board along with a special project coordinator and an infusion of new dollars. Gardenhire said then-Gov. Bill Haslam and his education commissioner agreed.

Over time, then-Superintendent Bryan Johnson left the system while the special project coordinator has another role in the system, Gardenhire told colleagues. Just over "$20 million-plus" in additional funding from the state, the county and local foundations was spent, he said.

"Here's the results: The community board has been relegated to a quarterly meeting where the new director presents a dog-and-pony show and shows the board, and the board does not have any authority to make changes," the senator said.

Gardenhire said two of the five schools came off the list. But six were added to the priority list and it grew to nine schools in 2022. He noted that after he publicly announced late last year that he intended to include the school system in the Educations Savings Account program that "somehow an additional school came off."

In September, the school system announced that Brainerd High School is no longer considered a "priority" school, meaning it is not among the bottom 5% of schools statewide.

"Now we still have eight schools on a failing-school list," Gardenhire said. "Now we have a new superintendent of schools, and he wants a chance to make this program work. This effort is like a game of whack-a-mole. You fix one and three pop up. And that's why I'm bringing this bill to give the students and the parents the opportunity, now repeat that, I'm going to give the parents and the students the opportunity to have a choice and not be trapped in failing schools."

Back in 2019, Lee was in his first year as governor. Faced with a House floor rebellion from many GOP members, he was forced to accept a deal that restricted the Educations Savings Account legislation solely to Shelby County and Metro Nashville schools, the state's largest school systems.

Watson later told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Gardenhire had provided an accurate account and that was why he decided to co-sponsor legislation.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, and other Democrats later blasted the legislation.

"Here again, we're in a situation where we're going to be taking even more funds from our public systems," Camper said. "We said this was going to happen with the first legislation -- they agreed there'll be only X number of students, X number of areas. And we knew they had plans to expand this ESA program."

Camper said vouchers are going to affect not just traditional public school funding but also public charter school funding.

"As you begin to take these funds from these schools, we'll begin to see traditional public schools close again," she predicted. "You look at the city of Memphis. We've closed 25 public schools."

Individual schools may lose "only five students here, six students there," Camper said. "But the totality of funding, year after year where you're not able to change your formula will impact maintenance, student-teacher ratios, all those things that it takes to run schools, that's not going to change for you. It's the money that's going to change. It's going to have a tremendous impact."

House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, is sponsoring the House companion bill. White said Thursday he intends to move the bill but hasn't determined just when.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.

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