U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised Tennessee's recently passed school voucher bill while addressing a room full of education reporters in Baltimore Monday.
Last week, lawmakers passed Gov. Bill Lee's controversial school education savings account plan, which would give taxpayer money to families to pay for private school or alternative school tuition and other education-related costs.
"The [Tennessee voucher] program is going to really benefit students and families who haven't been able to make choices before," DeVos said.
The final bill excluded Hamilton County - the program would now only apply to Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools, as well as the state's Achievement School District for failing public schools.
DeVos gave a keynote address at a convening of the Education Writers Association in Baltimore Monday. She was asked about an original provision of the proposed legislation that would make undocumented or immigrant students ineligible for the program.
"I don't think that ended up as part of the final program. I think that's been a matter for Tennessee to debate. I can't comment on a hypothetical. If it's not part of the program, it's not part of the program," she said.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was among nine Republicans who voted no on the final legislation last week because of a change in language in the bill that he said "effectively excludes undocumented students and even U.S.-born children whose parents are here illegally from participating."
It was a deal killer for Gardenhire, who has championed education for undocumented immigrant children, although he was happy the final bill excludes Hamilton County schools.
Educators in Hamilton County and across the state rallied against the legislation in recent weeks, but amid last minute compromises, the bill was sent to the governor's desk.
The legislation over the next five years would provide about $7,300 in state and local tax dollars annually to parents of up to 15,000 students who live in a school district that has one or more schools falling into the bottom 10 percent of public schools statewide.
School leaders in Memphis and Nashville have already threatened to a lawsuit if the legislation becomes law.
Devos' husband, Richard DeVos Jr., was recently in Chattanooga. He delivered Lee University's commencement address last Saturday.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
Six Chattanooga families return home after Bayberry Apartments walkway collapse; six others remain displaced