NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Outraged Tennessee lawmakers grilled state education officials Wednesday about the handling of a much-debated school voucher program, and a key Republican lawmaker made a surprise admission that he regretted voted for the measure.
At issue is the Department of Education's decision to award a $2.5 million non-compete contract to Florida-based vendor ClassWallet to help administer the applications and funds once the state's voucher program begins in the summer.
Some lawmakers have been grumbling for weeks about the contract's price tag — which exceeds the amount they appropriated in 2019 — and about being caught off guard by Gov. Bill Lee office's push to implement the voucher program as soon as possible.
That simmering resentment bubbled over during a Wednesday hearing when Rep. Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican, demanded answers from the education agency, comptroller's office and finance officials on who approved the contract and why legislators didn't get a chance to review it.
According to emails between the agency and legislative staffers, the Statehouse's fiscal review committee contacted the education agency multiple times last year to get an update on the voucher program and to learn more about what type of contract officials there would pursue.
Hill said the education agency never responded and the fiscal review committee found out about the ClassWallet no-bid contract through a news article in November.
During the sometimes-stormy House Finance Appropriations Subcommittee, Hill charged state officials effectively stonewalled efforts by the General Assembly's executive director of the watchdog fiscal review committee to determine what was going on.
"Just to be very frank, when they 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 should, 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."
Meanwhile, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a vice chairman of the Fiscal Review Committee, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, have introduced legislation. It's aimed squarely at ensuring non-bid contracts and agreements in the future come before the watchdog panel.
Originally, lawmakers budgeted approximately $730,000 to administer the school voucher program no later by the 2021-22 school year. Yet in November, the education agency announced it had signed a multi-year $2.5 million contract with ClassWallet through a no-bid contracting process.
The agency later clarified that it had taken money from a now phased-out education program to help cover the extra costs. The move has sparked anger from lawmakers. At least one Democratic member has requested an investigation by the state comptroller's office to ensure no laws were broken by the agency.
"We have to answer to our constituents about how we're spending their money," Hill said. "It's hard to do that when things get revised or changed without our knowledge."
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, along with several members of her senior team, defended the decision Wednesday, saying ClassWallet was the only vendor that could provide enough security and expertise in time to ensure a smooth roll-out of the school voucher program in August.
The program would allow a family to use up to $7,400 in public tax dollars, known as an education savings account, on private school tuition and other approved expenses. The law was a signature accomplishment for Lee, a first-term governor who has called for expanding school choice.
The measure was narrowly passed by the GOP-Statehouse amid concerns from Republican lawmakers and after going through multiple amendments. In the version that ultimately passed, Nashville and Memphis are the only two places where the voucher program would apply. The cities have sued the state, arguing the voucher program is unconstitutional.
"In my core of who I am, I believe in parental choice," said House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, a Republican from Cosby. "I made the decision to support the legislation. Since that day, I have probably regretted that vote more than any vote I've taken."
His remarks sparked push-back from fellow school voucher advocates, who countered that they still believe education savings accounts will be a valuable addition.
"To this point, I have not seen a smoking gun here that I think some might insinuate is present," said Rep. Andy Holt, a Republican from Dresden.
Wednesday's hearing concluded with Hill demanding the education agency return next week with "documentation" proving ClassWallet was the best vendor to select and why they didn't use a competitive bidding process.
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.