NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Senate lawmakers on Thursday approved the expansion of an education voucher program that allows public tax dollars to be given to families to pay for private schooling.
The Republican-dominant chamber voted 19-6 to approve the legislation to expand the voucher program to Hamilton County, with only Democrats voting against. Four Republican lawmakers declined to cast a vote. The bill must still clear the House chamber.
The GOP-led Statehouse narrowly approved the voucher program — known as education savings accounts — in 2019. Under the law, eligible families are given around $8,100 in public tax dollars to help pay for private school tuition and other preapproved expenses.
At the time, many Republican lawmakers agreed to enact the program after receiving assurances that it would only apply to Davidson and Shelby counties, which are Democratic strongholds in ruby red Tennessee.
Multiple legal challenges were filed by Nashville, Memphis and civil rights leaders to stop the program, but ultimately, a Tennessee judicial panel upheld the law in 2022.
“Whether you like the ESA bill or not, it’s here and it’s passed its legal challenges,” said Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire, adding that he wanted to give families “a choice and not be trapped in failing schools.”
Gardenhire previously told The Associated Press that he had been unsure if the school voucher law would survive legal challenges, so he supported Hamilton County not being included in the original 2019 law.
Senate Speaker Randy McNally said he’s unsure if legislation means the voucher program will continue to expand across the state, saying it’ll “depend on the counties and whether their senators want to do it.”