Tennessee private school voucher expansion bill clears first legislative hurdle

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A proposal that would expand eligibility for private school vouchers to students in a third large Tennessee school district passed easily out of its first legislative committee on Wednesday.

The Senate Education Committee voted 6-2 to advance a bill to bring the state’s education savings account program to Hamilton County Schools.

If the legislation becomes law, eligible families in the Chattanooga-based district, which has 44,000 students, could apply to receive taxpayer money to pay toward private school tuition next school year. 

The program, pushed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, launched this school year in Memphis and Nashville after the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the 2019 voucher law last spring. Metro Nashville and Shelby County governments continue to challenge the law’s constitutionality and have appealed their case to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

The expansion bill passed out of committee with little discussion.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican sponsoring the measure, said his proposal “just adds Hamilton County to the ESA pilot program” and wouldn’t affect other counties or school districts.

But Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari said it’s too soon to broaden a new state program that’s intended as a pilot to see if education savings accounts are effective.

“I don’t think there’s been enough time to even see if it will be successful,” said Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who voted “no” with Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald.

“I was opposed to it being piloted in Shelby County and in Davidson County as well,” Akbari added.

Sen. Rusty Crowe, a Republican from Johnson City, declined to vote.

The law directs the state comptroller to report on the program’s efficacy after its third year of enrolling students, which would be by Jan. 1, 2026.

As of Monday, the state education department had approved 643 applications to use vouchers, three-fifths of which are from families wanting to leave Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

You can track the bill on the state legislature’s website.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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