KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — UPDATE 4/21 - The Tennessee House voted to remove Knox County from the expanded school voucher bill it passed on April 19.
The House version of the bill expanded Tennessee's school voucher program to both Hamilton County and Knox County. The Senate version only included Hamilton County.
When the House passed an amended version of the Senate bill, to include Knox County, the Senate sponsor of the bill refused to concur. The House then passed the Senate version of the bill, without any additional amendments.
The version of the bill without Knox County will be sent to Governor Bill Lee for his signature.
On April 19, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill, HB 0433, with an amendment that would include Hamilton County, Madison County and Knox County in a controversial pilot school voucher program. The program allows public tax dollars to be given to families to help them pay for private schooling.
The bill expands the program to school districts with three or more "priority schools," and that have three or more schools among the bottom 10% of schools. According to Knox County Schools, four schools in the district are listed as priority schools. They are listed below.
- Austin-East High School
- Green Magnet Academy
- Maynard Elementary School
- Vine Middle Magnet School
The Senate version of the bill added Hamilton County, which includes Chattanooga, to the school voucher program. In the House, an amendment deleted all of the bill, and re-wrote it to include both Hamilton and Knox Counties. The full House passed the amended version of the bill.
The Senate did not concur with the House's changes to the bill with no discussion on April 20. The bill now needs to go to a Conference Committee, where they will need to agree on a final version of the bill before it can become law.
Knox County Senator Richard Briggs voted "present" on the Senate version of the bill, which did not include Knox County. Briggs said to 10News that he does not support public money toward private schools because state officials wouldn't have any oversight of the schools. Briggs cited the legislature's moves to restrict topics taught in public schools and catalog books.
"If we're going to do all that, then we ought to get out of public schools, too," Briggs said.
The pilot program effectively creates vouchers, known as education savings accounts (ESA). Eligible families are given around $8,100 in public tax dollars to help pay for private school tuition and other preapproved expenses, according to the Associated Press.
It was approved in 2019, but the state could only implement the program after the Tennessee Supreme Court lifted a legal battle. In that legal battle, opponents said that schools and students would be hurt by the program because school districts would lose money for every student that participates in it.
"The reason that this General Assembly, back then, reluctantly agreed to it after a long debate was because this was a pilot program in two urban areas. We've done nothing, other than what we've done this year toward that five-year pilot program and it's been going on less than a year. Why would you add two additional counties to an unproven, unsubstantiated program?" said Rep. Sam McKenzie (D - Knoxville). "I disagree with the whole notion of adding to the program."
He said the original intention of the program was to have a control group with parent surveys and audits from the comptroller.
"There's nothing in this bill that prevents the parent from making the best choice for their child," Rep. Mark White (R - Memphis) said. "If you're locked into a failing system with a low-performing priority school, a parent that's making $75,000 or less that would like educational opportunity for their children, they don't have it. It is required, and so there is no option for them. This is a bill to help parents find a way out."
White said by expanding the program, they would collect more data about the program.
"The original intention of the bill back in 2019 was for it to be statewide," he said.
It was already in place in Shelby County and Davidson County, which have two of the state's major metro areas — Memphis and Nashville. The program gradually allows students to enroll in the program, with more spots available each year. In the first year, 5,000 students can join. Then, 7,500 students can join the second year. Each year increases by 2,500 afterward until the fifth year, which caps at 15,000 students.
"I keep hearing it was passed in 2019. Let's get one thing clear from the very front, I was on this floor — that bill did not pass. It may have been 'purchased' on this floor, but it did not 'pass' in this House," said Rep. Bo Mitchell (D - Nashville). "Nothing on this floor was debated and passed ... It was not passed in this House, it was purchased on that balcony."
In 2019, the school voucher bill was passed by a single vote. Knox County Rep. Jason Zachary (R - Knoxville) changed his vote at the last minute, allowing the bill to pass the House. Zachary said he received no money or gifts in return for the vote.
However Zachary said, in 2019, both Governor Bill Lee and former House Speaker Glenn Casada promised him Knox County would be left out of the voucher bill. In 2023, Zachary voted "yes" on the House bill, with the amendment, which includes Knox County. Zachary has not responded to a question from 10news on why he voted for the bill this year.
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem (D - Chattanooga) also asked White whether there was any community discussion about moving the program into Hamilton County. White said the bill was brought to him by colleagues from Hamilton County, and later by colleagues from Knox County.
However, White said he never had a discussion with Hakeem. A majority of affected schools are located in his district, he said.
"Evidently, you think it's right to make legislation an area, for a representative, without talking with that representative," Hakeem said.
Representative Gloria Johnson (D - Knoxville), a former teacher, said that White never reached out to her about the bill.
"The citizens of Knox County, the majority of them, do not want vouchers and that is a fact by polling," said Johnson. "The idea that this is some sort of a solution, it's not been proven anywhere in the country and it's not been proven in Tennessee yet, so why are we rushing to change something that is not working?"
Her microphone was later cut off.
"I've received emails, texts and phone calls asking to please work and try to get Knox County added onto this bill," said Rep. Michele Carringer (R - Knoxville). "Each district supports and needs different things for their district, and District 16 in Knox County very much supports this."
Johnson also said according to data from other states with similar voucher programs, students who attend private schools with vouchers do not perform better than students in public schools.
"Beginning in the 2025-26 school year, the proposed legislation would decrease the local revenue for impacted LEAs. In addition, the LEAs will not incur the cost of educating children who leave the LEAs. Under current law, these decreases would occur in Shelby and Davidson Counties; this legislation will shift some of that impact to Hamilton, Madison, and Knox counties," the fiscal note says.
The state Senate had already passed a version of the bill earlier that sets the threshold for school districts to join at five priority schools, and only Hamilton County would have joined the program. The House amendment reduced that number to three schools.
"We're sold a bill of goods that this was to help those kids who were stuck in those poor inner-city schools that were so awful, and we're holding opportunities back from these kids. Well, we know that was a lie because we opened it up this year for everybody and anybody that wants it, and then from the get-go, it was all schools in that LEA and not just the schools in those failing schools," said Rep. Bo Mitchell (D - Nashville). "It's for wealthy kids to be subsidized, that's all this is about. It's the charter schools that have been taking away from the mid-level private schools, we had to throw them some cash."
The Tennessee House of Representatives passed the bill in a 57-35 vote.