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State Sen. Todd Gardenhire is pictured in this file photo.

Tennessee may offer vouchers averaging $6,628 annually to as many as 5,000 students who attend poorly performing public schools, so students can use the money to go to private school.

But with elite private schools in Chattanooga charging as much as $24,000 annually for a day student's tuition, and most parochial schools charging more than $6,628, how many private schools here will want to accept students with state vouchers?

Even state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who sponsored the school voucher legislation, can't say.

"I don't know who will take it," Gardenhire said. "Just because you're a private school doesn't mean you have to take it. I haven't asked any. I just wanted to give them the opportunity."

Gardenhire says school voucher legislation will pass this week. But some observers in Nashville say it's close and disagree on whether the bill will have enough votes to get out of the House Finance, Ways and Means subcommittee.

The state expects that 2,500 students will use the scholarships, if they're made available next year. A total of 5,000 scholarships would be offered to children who attend or are zoned for schools in the bottom 5 percent of schools in overall achievement. Students must be eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Eventually, 20,000 students would be eligible, as the voucher program grows.

Vouchers will average $6,628 statewide in the first year, but will vary by school district based on how much the district receives through the state's Basic Education Program [BEP] school funding formula.

Private schools that participate can't charge more tuition than the state will offer through the voucher scholarship.

While elite private schools likely won't take students with the state vouchers, many parochial schools may, said Richard Martin, executive director for the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools.

"There are some schools that do operate in that [tuition] range," Martin said. "The difference could be made up in financial aid."

Tennessee's school voucher program has drawn flak from those who say taxpayer money shouldn't be used to fund religious institutions.

Voucher programs sidestep that, according to Martin, "because the state money is going to the child, rather than the school."

Going to hear 'sucking sound'

In Hamilton County, 9,767 students are enrolled in 38 private schools, according to figures from the Tennessee Department of Education. The Hamilton County Department of Education has around 43,000 students. So about 19 percent of students here attend private school, compared to 9 percent nationwide.

Tuition here ranges from elite schools, such as McCallie School, an all-boys college prep school that charges almost $24,000 annually for a day student and $46,000 for boarders, to parochial schools, such as the Greater Collegedale School System, where tuition costs around $4,500 for elementary school students and $10,000 for high school students if their families belong to Seventh-day Adventist churches that contribute to the school system.

Private school officials in Hamilton County were happy to hear that school vouchers may be offered. But none wanted to commit yet to offering berths to students.

"Certainly, we appreciate that they're looking at helping people attend schools that they would like to," said Brent Baldwin, lead principal at the Greater Collegedale School System.

George Valadie, president of Notre Dame High School, where Catholic students pay about $10,500 in tuition and non-Catholics pay $14,000, didn't know if the state scholarship would be enough.

"That's a hypothetical that we haven't gotten to, yet," Valadie said, adding, "I think the Catholic Church's mission is trying to help and have as many folks as possible, regardless of their financial position."

Even if private schools here won't take school vouchers, someone will -- and that will take money away from Hamilton County's public schools, Soddy-Daisy school board member Rhonda Thurman said Thursday night.

"There's somebody who will start a for-profit school in Hamilton County who will take the vouchers," said Thurman, who was on the losing end of a 7-2 vote last week when the school board asked the County Commission for a $34 million annual boost to the school district's budget.

Thurman invoked presidential candidate Ross Perot's warning in 1992 that the North American Free Trade Agreement would create a "giant sucking sound" of U.S. jobs going south of the border.

"We're going to hear that sucking sound sucking money out of the school system," she said. "I think we need to be proactive and get this budget as lean as we can."

Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, the local teachers union, said vouchers could be "devastating" to local school districts' budgets.

"I think it's really a way to support private schools or schools for profit," Hughes said.

The school voucher legislation that Gardenhire sponsored already has cleared the state Senate and funding for it is in Gov. Bill Haslam's budget, Gardenhire said. He's certain it will be signed into law.

"I'm going to be very surprised if it doesn't happen," he said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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