FILE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee State of the State

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State in Nashville. Content Exchange

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is defending the launch of a school-voucher program after members of his own party who supported the bill have criticized its implementation because of higher-than-expected costs.

"The governor cares more about kids in the state than about a process that is being hampered by those who are detractors of the [voucher] program," Interim Press Secretary Gillum Ferguson told The Center Square in an email. "The governor believes children and parents in Tennessee need more quality options in education, and that is what the Education Savings Account program will provide."

The program will provide funding for parents to take their children out of public schools and enroll them in private schools. The state Legislature allocated less than $750,000 to launch the program, but the Tennessee Department of Education signed onto a multiyear contract that guarantees $2.5 million, with potential extensions that could cost the state more than $6.3 million.

On Wednesday, some members of the House Finance, Ways & Means Appropriations Subcommittee denounced the department’s actions, saying that this larger contract moved outside of legislative intent. Some of the critics had even supported the bill at first.

“You can’t do stuff like this and then think there’s not consequences in the general public,” Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, told department staff during the subcommittee meeting. “I can’t stress to you how bad that looks for us [because], fundamentally, I voted for this bill, but because of one misstep after another after another, I feel like, my gosh, I can’t explain this to my people at home.”

The subcommittee chairman, who also voted for the bill, grilled representatives from the department, asking them where they found the money and why the Legislature was not kept up to date on changes.

“How does $750,000, which was approved by the Legislature, turn into $6,328,750 and where in the world did you get this money?” Chairman Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough asked department representatives.

Hill admonished the department for failing to update legislators on the contract process, despite several requests from the Fiscal Review Joint Committee, which he said did not find out about the deal until it became public.

Joanna Collins, the assistant general counsel for procurement at the Tennessee Department of Education, told the subcommittee the department provided a no-compete contract to the vendor ClassWallet because it was the only company that fit its criteria. The department needed a vendor that could meet technical and security requirements and offer a user-friendly platform for services. She also said the department ruled out vendors that had problems rolling out similar programs in other states. After weeding out vendors that did not meet this criteria, the department was left with ClassWallet.

Drew Harpool, the chief financial officer at Tennessee Department of Education, told the subcommittee the department funded the additional costs by reappropriating unused money out of a program that was already being phased out. State law allows a department to reappropriate money from one program to another if one program has savings and the other has a deficit.

Harpool said the additional costs came from speeding up the voucher system to ensure students could take part in it by the 2020 school year, rather than the 2021 school year. The legislation required that the program be launched by the 2021 school year, but left room for the process to be quickened.

Some of the subcommittee members stood by their support for the legislation.

“I don’t regret in any way supporting the [voucher] legislation,” Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, told members of the department. He then criticized some of the language that was used to criticize the department.

“I do think that for us to use terms like ‘rob’ and for us to use terms like ‘sketchy’ and to make other accusations of the commissioner and the department generally is unacceptable and is beneath the Legislature and the Tennessee General Assembly and, specifically, the House of Representatives,” Holt said.

Representatives from the department will be brought back to the subcommittee next week for additional questions.

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