Legislation enabling the state’s private school vouchers to spread to Hamilton County Schools could run into trouble this session, at least in the House of Representatives.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton isn’t expected to be a strong supporter of the legislation after voting against the education savings account program twice in 2019 when it barely passed the Legislature.
“I’m not a proponent of ESAs. If they run it and get it through committee and get it on the House floor, see what happens,” Sexton said on the opening day of the 113th General Assembly.
Sexton was among the rural legislators who opposed the legislation four years ago when then-Speaker Glen Casada held the vote board open for nearly 45 minutes and worked the chamber to find support to break a tie. Ultimately, Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, agreed to vote for the bill in exchange for Knox County Schools being removed as a voucher district.
Several lawmakers who voted against the bill complained that Casada tried to offer them inducements to support the measure. The FBI started investigating amid reports Casada allegedly offered to get the governor to promote former Rep. John Mark Windle to the rank of general in the Tennessee National Guard.
Sponsored this year in the Senate by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, the bill would allow qualifying students in Hamilton County Schools to use about $8,000 in state funds to pay for tuition and other items to attend private schools. The measure would expand the program from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools where the state is taking applications from students after the Supreme Court overruled two lower courts and said the program doesn’t violate the Constitution.
Rep. Mark White, chairman of the House Education Administration Committee, confirmed Wednesday he will sponsor the measure in the House and expects to file the bill next week. He wasn’t certain whether it would spread further, since many rural lawmakers are opposed to vouchers because school systems are some of the largest employers in their counties.
“If they want it in their particular county, and I’m always agreeable to help them because I am a voucher supporter, a parent’s right to choose what’s best for a child’s education supporter, so I don’t know if it will expand anything beyond that, but I’m grateful he wants to do this,” White, R-East Memphis, said Wednesday, referring to Gardenhire.
Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, chair of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, is expected to co-sponsor the legislation. She previously told the Tennessee Lookout she decided to get behind vouchers for Hamilton County Schools’ students after a special advisory board failed to remove schools from the state’s failing list.
Hazlewood pointed out the number of failing schools in Hamilton County has increased since 2019. With a new state funding formula in place, based on the needs of each student, she said “it only seems fair that Hamilton County students who are zoned for these failing schools should have a chance at a higher quality education as do those in Shelby and Davidson.”
In contrast, state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, expressed reservations about expanding vouchers to Hamilton County, saying Wednesday he’s “not convinced it’s in the best interests of the students and parents in Hamilton County.” He plans to study the legislation more thoroughly.
“It gives me great pause when we talk about taking money out of public schools and essentially putting it in a private environment,” Hakeem said.
He estimated at least 20% of Hamilton County students attend private schools and noted this measure could hurt funding there further.
Hakeem added he might consider supporting the legislation if the school district were to tell him it could survive the loss of ESA money or that it would improve the school system.
“But I don’t want to do anything that limits or impairs the school system when it’s trying, striving to be better than it’s been in the past,” Hakeem said.
The legislation could receive a kinder reception in the Senate where it passed with more ease four years ago, though on a close vote.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has supported “school choice” through the years and “appreciates Sen. Gardenhire’s efforts in moving the conversation forward,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider said.
Meanwhile, Sexton said he believes charter schools are the “right option” for Tennessee as far as options for students in struggling schools.
“You shouldn’t sentence someone’s child to a life of mediocrity in a school system because it’s not performing well,” Sexton said.
He floated the idea of boarding charter schools with better mentors and more protection where parents could send their children, removing them from the normal environment, possibly a “gang-related” situation.