MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Members of the Tennessee Department of Education faced tough questions from state lawmakers in the joint government operations committee over the governor’s school voucher program.
The program would give taxpayer money to parents in Shelby and Davidson counties who want to move their children from low-performing public schools to private schools.
For 90 minutes, Democrats on the committee grilled them over the cost of the program and how it would impact families.
“It seems like the legislature was misled with respect to the cost of this program,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville. “Am I confused?”
When the bill was approved last year, the cost to implement the program the first year was projected to be about $770,000. But Gov. Bill Lee ordered the program to be implemented this year, a year earlier than proposed.
The department signed a contract with a vendor to manage online payments and applications for an annual cost of $1.2 million.
Amity Schuyler, the deputy education commissioner of choice, explained how the department made up the difference.
"The department was able to use the funds appropriated for the program this fiscal year and we also used funds from another program that had sunset," said Schuyler.
That answer didn't satisfy some lawmakers like Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, and neither did Schuyler's answer about whether parents whose children participate in the program will be taxed.
"We cannot tell any of these individuals with 100 percent certainty that the Internal Revenue Service won't come after them?" Hardaway asked.
"The intent of the legislation is for this not to be considered income for parents," Schuyler responded.
Schuyler admitted the state hadn't reached out to the IRS to get a ruling.
"That's disturbing to me," said Hardaway.
Schuyler said the IRS has been silent on this issue, but that parents who participate in similar school voucher programs in other states are not taxed because tuition is not considered income.
Hardaway urged the department to get a ruling from the IRS.
Republicans on the committee pushed back against criticism from their Democratic colleagues.
"I know people are grasping now, trying to stop this, trying to keep kids from having the opportunity that others have," said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.
The committee approved the rules for the program in a party-line vote, moving school vouchers one step closer to reality.