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NASHVILLE — A defiant Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday defended his administration's use of a non-competitive grant process and stripping funds from a defunct education account to hire a company to speed up implementation of his already controversial school voucher program.

A number of fellow Republicans in the General Assembly are furious over the Department of Education's move to award a $2.53 million non-competitive contract and grant to Florida-based ClassWallet to implement his Education Savings Account program.

Lee's moves came under harsh criticism Wednesday in the House Appropriations Subcommittee with its chairman, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, charging the administration stonewalled efforts by the General Assembly's Fiscal Review Committee to gain documents to understand what was going on.

(MORE: Tennessee's school voucher program faces lawsuit)

Asked by reporters Thursday about the situation after his address to the Tennessee Press Association, the governor declared, "I care more about kids in the state than I do about a process that is trying to be hampered by those who are detractors to a process."

Meanwhile, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, last week introduced legislation to ensure such contracts are done openly and brought before the Fiscal Review Committee for examination and approval.

Defending the administration's actions, Lee said, "I don't think the status quo has served us as it should. I think children in our state and parents in our state need choices about their kids' education. So I want to move forward, considering kids, education and parents more than I'm considering the status quo and leaving that system as it is."

A day earlier, legislative tempers flared during a stormy Tennessee House panel meeting as several GOP lawmakers railed over the non-competitive contract and the stripping of money from the now-unused Career Ladder program account without specific legislative approval.

During Wednesday's stormy subcommittee hearing, Hill told Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and other administration officials that "just to be very frank, when [the Education Department] asked for $750,000 and then spent $2.5 million without telling us and when Fiscal Review asks for months, months for details on the financials of this grant/contract/whatever, and gets the cold shoulder, gets no response whatsoever until after it's already issued, that is a real problem."

At "the end of the day," Hill said, "we have some unanswered questions that need to be addressed."

Schwinn and others defended the process at the hearing, with Schwinn saying ClassWallet was the only firm capable of handling the online platform through which qualified parents sign up their children to use an estimated $7,400 annually to pay for private school tuition.

But Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, another voucher supporter, blasted the process, saying it had caused him to lose faith in the program.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, has called on state Comptroller Justin Wilson's office to investigate.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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