Gov. Lee, Sen. Gardenhire show interest in statewide voucher expansion

Staff photo / State Sen. Todd Gardenhire speaks in 2020 during an appearance in Ooltewah. Gardenhire is a longtime supporter of education savings accounts.

NASHVILLE — A planned effort to expand Tennessee's private school voucher program beyond Hamilton, Davidson and Shelby counties to the state's other 92 counties is drawing interest from Republican Gov. Bill Lee as well as from Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

"I would be a supporter of that concept," said Gardenhire, who passed legislation earlier this year to add Hamilton County schools to the state's 2019 voucher program, which uses education savings accounts, in a Friday phone interview. "But the devil is always in the details. I have to see the bill first, but the concept of school choice, I'm in favor of."

The Tennessean reported last week that House Education Administration Chair Mark White, R-Memphis, is saying "it's time" to expand the program to all 95 counties.

"It just baffles me that we are pro-choice on so many things, but we still struggle with freedom of choice when it comes to schools," White told the newspaper.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Senate approves expansion of school voucher program to Hamilton County)

A spokesperson for Lee, who in 2019 pressed the statewide education savings account program but only managed to squeeze through a truncated measure applying just to Davidson and Shelby counties, said her boss is interested in White's effort.

"Since taking office, Gov. Lee has been passionate about providing choices for parents and expanding educational opportunity for all students, while making historic investments in Tennessee's public schools every year," Lee spokesperson Elizabeth Johnson said in a statement. "As we've seen with Tennessee's ESA program in Shelby, Davidson and Hamilton counties, the opportunity to choose the right school can change the trajectory of a child's life, particularly for those living in an underserved ZIP code.

"The governor is always interested in working with the General Assembly to empower more Tennessee families with the freedom to choose the best education for their child, and we will continue discussions with legislative leadership in the months ahead," Johnson added.

Lee's original 2019 proposal applied to all 95 counties. But it deadlocked 49-49 on the House floor for 40 minutes until Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, wound up switching his vote, clearing the way for the bill's passage 50-48. Forty-nine Republican lawmakers and one pro-voucher Democrat, voted for it. All had their home counties excluded from the bill.

READ MORE: Former Tennessee Rep. Robin Smith pleads guilty to fraud

The education savings account program provides nearly $9,000 in state and federal taxpayer dollars to qualifying students to attend accredited private and religious schools chosen by families. Parents can use the money to pay for tuition, books, uniforms, technology, transportation and other types of education expenses.

The state has approved 75 private schools in and around Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga to participate. More than 2,000 students have been approved for the vouchers statewide.

(READ MORE: Private school vouchers have arrived in Hamilton County)

Democrats critical

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, was critical of the proposal to expand the program.

"The plan to expand vouchers in our state has nothing to do with choice," she said in a text. "It's about privatizing public education in our state, and while it may be a great opportunity for private out-of-state investors, it's a horrible plan for Tennessee families because every child in our state deserves access to a good publicly funded education."

House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said in a Saturday statement to the Times Free Press the state lacks data to support a statewide expansion of Lee's private school voucher program and it remains a "pilot program."

"However," Clemmons added, "we have ample data from other states that have enacted similar models clearly showing that vouchers do not improve educational outcomes or allow so-called 'choice' for students."

Tennessee Education Association President Tonya T. Coats said state leaders "love to brag" about Tennessee's workforce, unemployment and the corporations that choose to relocate here.

"All those things are possible because of Tennessee public schools," Coats said. "It is irresponsible and reckless to push a statewide voucher program that would jeopardize the foundation our state's success is built upon. When legislators forced the limited voucher bill through in 2019, false promises were made about it only being for Nashville and Memphis. Now here we are just a few short years later with legislators attempting to expand the unproven program statewide."

Rural areas

Gardenhire, who represents part of Hamilton County, said he doesn't expect the expansion to include many rural counties such as the three he also represents — Marion, Sequatchie and Bledsoe — since there aren't many, if any, private or religious K-12 schools there.

But he said cities such as Murfreesboro, Clarksville, Knoxville and Johnson City currently have no choice to participate in the education savings account program.

"But they would have a choice if there was a statewide voucher program that would encourage that they do have private schools up there," Gardenhire said. "Then that would give the parents a choice to where they send their kids if they weren't happy with their current school system."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-285-9480.