By KIMBERLEE KRUESI Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Legislative leaders say they have concerns over how the Department of Education selected its vendor to administer Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher program, but they have no plans to halt the contract from moving forward.
Senate Speaker Randy McNally said Thursday the Legislature will instead focus on changing state laws to avoid future contract conflicts.
The issue has plagued the GOP-dominant Statehouse for weeks as lawmakers have demanded answers from Lee and the education agency over a $2.5 million noncompete grant contract with Florida-based vendor ClassWallet.
Late last year, the education agency selected ClassWallet to help administer the applications and funds once the state's voucher program begins in the summer. However, due to the department using a noncompetitive grant process to select ClassWallet, the agreement never was submitted to the Legislature for review.
This sparked alarm among some lawmakers unhappy the education agency's decision to select ClassWallet skirted legislative scrutiny, as well as uneasiness the contract resulted in a higher dollar amount than was budgeted the year before.
After calls for further investigation were made by Democratic lawmakers, McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton asked Lee to provide proof the department acted legally.
"When we asked the governor's office for how they were able to use this as a grant, they were able to provide some legal authority that they believe gave them that power," McNally, a Republican, told reporters Thursday. "We still have reservations about that."
McNally added he wants to better define the grant process and when the Legislature's fiscal review committee should be pulled in.
"I'm seeing the use of different mechanisms to go around the committee," said Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Yager, who also sits on the fiscal review panel. "I think that needs to be changed. It is very important for all of our contracts go through fiscal review."
But when asked about revisiting the education department's decision surrounding ClassWallet, McNally said no.
"I don't think we would really cancel the contract, we certainly will review it carefully," he said.
Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn have defended the state's actions as necessary to get the contract in place and ensure the voucher program will be ready this summer.
"I care more about kids in this state than I do about a process that is trying to be hampered by those who are detractors to a process," Lee said when recently pressed about the ClassWallet scrutiny.
The program would allow a family to use up to $7,400 in public tax dollars, known as an education savings account, on private school tuition and other approved expenses.
Nashville and Memphis are the only places where the voucher program would apply. The cities have since sued the state, arguing the voucher program is unconstitutional and want to block the program from being implemented while the lawsuit moves through court.