Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: COVID-19 voucher bill draws chilly House reception

January 28, 2022 7:00 am
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, left, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally are backing a bill that would give parents money to put their kids in private schools if public schools close for a specified amount of time due to COVID. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, left, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally are backing a bill that would give parents money to put their kids in private schools if public schools close for a specified amount of time due to COVID. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The latest school voucher bill is barely out of Pandora’s Box and already House members are dissing it.

In fact, the measure that passed the Senate Education Committee last week is being rewritten, and a new bill will start from scratch. Rep. Michael Curcio, sponsor of House Bill 1671, says the changes are merely wording to make sure the bill’s caption is wide enough in case it has to be amended to capture votes.

But the measure, which will go through the House Education Instruction Subcommittee at some point, isn’t exactly winning this year’s Most Popular award.

At least three Republican members of the subcommittee aren’t likely to back it. Reps. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill and Terri Lynn Weaver of Lancaster, vice chair of the House Administration Instruction Committee, are hard “no” votes. Republican Rep. Bruce Griffey of Paris is leaning away from it after voting against the Education Savings Account bill three years ago, and Republican Rep. Debra Moody, though she signed on as a co-sponsor, won’t say she is a definite “yes” vote. Moody would have voted for the voucher bill three years ago, but because of a death in the family she missed the meeting when a tie vote forced then-House Speaker Glen Casada to hold the board open for more than 40 minutes to work the chamber for one last “yes.” Republican Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville agreed to vote for it on the condition Knox County be removed as a voucher district.

Thus, Gov. Bill Lee’s bill became law but didn’t take effect because of legal challenges, when two courts found it unconstitutional. A Chancery Court and the Court of Appeals determined it violated the state’s Home Rule Provision because it didn’t receive approval from Metro  Nashville or Shelby County, whose school districts would be affected, enabling parents of low-income children to use state funds to enroll students in private schools.

I represent rural Tennessee for the most part, and I just can't see taking money out of our rural Tennessee schools.

– Rep. Todd Warner, R-Culleoka

This year’s bill would provide vouchers for students in districts that fail to hold in-person classes for 180 days because of COVID-19. Forget about the myriad of other problems a district could face, it’s just the coronavirus and its variants, which are causing nearly 140 schools to earn waivers for virtual learning this school year.

Warner, who has been plagued by an FBI raid since he took office in January 2021, is adamant in his opposition to vouchers, which he says helped him defeat Republican Rep. Rick Tillis last election.

“I just don’t support vouchers. I represent rural Tennessee for the most part, and I just can’t see taking money out of our rural Tennessee schools,” Warner says. “They do a good job, and I gave my word on the front end I wouldn’t support vouchers, and that’s where I stand.”

Griffey says he wants to look at the bill closely.

“My constituents, administrators, teachers are concerned, and I think everyone would rather we proceed with caution, move slowly rather than quickly, and I’m afraid … last minute, something’s presented to us and rush, rush, rush,” Griffey says.

Three Democrats on the subcommittee will vote against it, and Republican Rep. Kirk Haston of Perry County, voted against the voucher bill three years ago.

That leaves three likely “yes” votes in Chairman Scott Cepicky, Republican Rep. John Ragan and Moody of Tiptonville, though she won’t give a solid answer, and maybe one more. “I just need to look at it to make sure I’ve got a good handle on it,” Moody says, while acknowledging her district’s schools probably oppose vouchers.

If the bill is moved to the House Education Administration Committee, as someone suggested could be done, that doesn’t give a good appearance either.

Backing from on high

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton support the voucher bill, even though the latter voted against the voucher bill three years ago. 

Sexton continually points out it would help students in the Achievement School District, the state-run program for struggling schools that hasn’t worked as state officials hoped.

“And for us to continue to turn a blind eye on those schools in the bottom 5%, regardless of where they are in the state, and tell the parents, just turn the school around, it’s not the right direction to go,” Sexton says.

Another question is whether this is an “end-around” on the ESA program, which remains before the Tennessee Supreme Court. The new bill would have statewide application, meaning parents in every school district would have the option to use vouchers if their child’s school doesn’t offer 180 days of in-class instruction because of COVID. (That’s a mouthful.) Thus, the law could sidestep the Home Rule Provision.

“I wouldn’t call it an end-around, but it would probably bolster the way they would rule on the original bill,” McNally says.

Sexton doesn’t see it as a way to sidestep the court case, either, only to give parents another option.

"I can’t tell what they’re thinking when they’re trying to expand a law that’s not valid and legal right now," said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, of the latest voucher bill. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“I can’t tell what they’re thinking when they’re trying to expand a law that’s not valid and legal right now,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, of the latest voucher bill. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sexton blames Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools for using only virtual learning during much of the 2020-21 school year, which led to poor test scores and forced the Legislature to fund a summer program to bolster learning “due to the decisions of a few.”

Sen. Jeff Yarbro scoffs at the need for the bill or the notion sponsors might be trying to avert a court defeat for the governor’s ESA program.

“I can’t tell what they’re thinking when they’re trying to expand a law that’s not valid and legal right now. You can’t exercise this law anyway, so I don’t know why we’re trying to change it at this moment,” says Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.

The “clearest” thing about the new bill is that lawmakers see a way to “punish” districts that “get out of line,” such as Metro Nashville and Shelby County, Yarbro says.

But Curcio, R-Dickson, doesn’t consider it a form of punishment or a way to neutralize a potential loss at the high court.

“I always wanted every parent in Tennessee to have access to that opportunity. That’s not something the General Assembly was ready for. They didn’t want it in all 95 counties,” Curcio says. 

The program already exists, and the funding structure is available, the question is determining “who’s eligible and who is not,” Curcio says.

Too bad a lot of lawmakers hate it. In fact, some Republicans who don’t want to talk on the record, say “hell no!” when asked if they’ll support it. They’re ready to take the consequences too.

Bluff City rumble

The state House redistricting map Republicans adopted this week created a tempest among Memphis’ Democratic lawmakers, mainly involving veteran Rep. Barbara Cooper, who is 92, and two of the city’s youngest House members. (We’ll let you decide if a teapot is needed.)

The conflagration sprang up when the plan adopted largely on a party-line vote put state Reps. London Lamar and Torrey Harris in the same district, forcing them to run against each other or choose another option, possibly even a run for the seat about to be vacated by state Sen. Katrina Robinson. 

(Robinson is about to face a Wednesday, Feb. 2, hearing before the full Senate, which is considering a recommendation from its Ethics Committee that she be ousted for violating the code of ethics.

The Memphis Democrat was found guilty of two felony counts of diverting $3,500 in federal grant money for her nursing school to personal expenses, such as her wedding. She also entered pre-trial diversion for allegedly defrauding a prospective student of more than $14,000 to split with other people.

Those constitute a violation of the Senate’s ethics code, the Republican-dominated panel determined last week.) 

State Rep. Barbara Cooper of Memphis: Not going anywhere. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)
State Rep. Barbara Cooper of Memphis: Not going anywhere. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

But getting back to the topic, Cooper said Thursday Lamar came to her and asked that she step away from the Legislature so she and Harris, a freshman legislator, wouldn’t have to face off against each other.

“She did say to me, to my face, that in her opinion, I should resign, so I just disagreed,” Cooper says. “There were no harsh (words), other than to me it was just disrespectful.”

Rep. Joe Towns, who chairs the Shelby Democratic Caucus, confirmed that Lamar and Harris wanted Cooper to leave her post so they could get out of a race against each other. They petitioned to force her out because they thought she was “too old, and that’s wrong,” Towns said.

“She has more wisdom in her little finger than most of them have in their whole body,” Towns says.

Towns rejected the idea that he signed off on the Republicans’ plan to put Lamar and Harris in the same district. He noted he didn’t have any input into the plan, even though Republican Speaker Pro Tem said on the House floor that Shelby legislative leadership signed off on it. Towns heads the Shelby Democratic Caucus, and Lamar leads the Shelby Legislative Caucus.

A culling of Shelby County Democrats was expected because of Memphis’ stagnant population, even though Democrats proposed a plan that would have kept all 14 House seats in Shelby, including nine urban districts.

As Republicans and House Minority Leader Karen Camper said, however, the decision was based mainly on “seniority,” as it always has been done in Memphis/Shelby County. Camper says she didn’t sign off on the plan, either.

In other words, the newbies have to fend for themselves.

But Lamar was upset, to put it lightly, Thursday that Cooper and Towns said she wanted Cooper to leave her seat.

Lamar says she was told Towns was involved in putting her and Harris in the same district, based on seniority. She says she approached him about it and he denied it.

State Rep. London Lamar denies she asked Rep. Barbara Cooper to retire. “I said, no, I’m asking, is anybody thinking about it. But I didn’t tell her she had to,” said Lamar. Both Lamar and Cooper are Memphis Democrats.

Lamar contends she was “shut down” when she asked the Shelby Democratic Caucus to meet about the matter and merely asked if Rep. Cooper or any other members were “considering retiring.”

“(Towns) got mad at me for asking that question and went off about it, and went to Rep. Cooper,” she says.

Lamar claims Cooper called her to her office and asked if she wanted her to retire. “I said, no, I’m asking, is anybody thinking about it. But I said if you were thinking about it, are you considering it? So, I didn’t tell her she had to,” Lamar says.

Nevertheless, Lamar has been outspoken in saying the state’s two youngest lawmakers have been “successful” in passing legislation and should be able to become the delegation’s next set of leaders.

Harris was not available for comment Thursday.

But suffice it to say, he and Lamar will have to figure out a way to handle this if they want to stay in politics. It doesn’t look like the Shelby Democrats are going to bend.

“The kids are (not) alright.”

Left out in the cold

The state House redistricting plan approved this week also put Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson in the same Knoxville district with fellow Democratic Rep. Sam McKenzie. 

The duo tried to persuade controlling Republicans they could simply move Johnson’s street a short distance on the map and keep them in separate districts, without much change in the numbers.

They might as well have been talking to a granite wall.

In response, Johnson says she’ll look at the maps and see where she’s going to run and will move, if she has to, into her old district. She lived in House District 13 for 30 years and will likely stay in it even though it’s now called District 90.

But she will not go head to head with McKenzie.

“I have said from the very beginning I would never run against Rep. McKenzie. That has traditionally, since I’ve been around, an African-American district, and there’s absolutely no way I would take, dilute that voice in this body” because there are already too few Black voices.

Sodom and Gomorrah via Nashville's Lower Broadway entertainment district. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sodom and Gomorrah via Nashville’s Lower Broadway entertainment district. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Don’t look back

Lest anyone turn to a pillar of salt, they’d better stay off Lower Broad where those raucous transportainment rides are ruining wholesome and family-oriented Nashville.

“I won’t go down there now, it’s like Sodom and Gomorrah,” Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver said during a House Transportation Committee this week. A singer herself, Weaver once went to local bars to hear musical acts, but no more.

The rolling bars, usually filled with bachelorette parties, are full of young, drunk women exhibiting lewd behavior, “flashing” people and doing who knows what else, according to Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman of Nashville. Young men are probably culprits as well.

Freeman received the first nod this week on his bill giving Metro Nashville the authority to regulate and inspect the party buses that are causing an uproar across town, bothering school kids and causing parents to cover children’s eyes. His main contention was that they pose a safety hazard, but the real deal is that they’re destroying the area as a nice attraction.

Just about everyone agreed, except for some who said the free market ought to be able to ferret out the bad actors.

But those in favor of some controls prevailed.

Rep. Sam Whitson, a Franklin Republican who grew up in Nashville, said he could remember when you could take a dog to Acme Feed and Seed and have it dipped free. Those days are long gone, but even with the area’s revitalization, Whitson says he doesn’t believe Tootsie Bess, the original owner of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge “would like what she sees today.” 

“It kind of took the soul and what really made Nashville Nashville and the Music City and the venue of our honky tonks, and it’s changed,” Whitson says.

The question is whether Metro will start sending out inspectors who cite people for “flashing.” After all, how will they file a report if they have to close their eyes?

Dishing out the green

Gov. Bill Lee and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe announced $28.5 million in community development block grants for infrastructure, housing rehabilitation and health and safety projects this week.

They will go to 62 communities across the state to build up their basic needs, everything from water and sewer systems to fire protection and emergency warning systems.

And, in case you forgot, Gov. Lee will give his State of the State address Monday night.

Book banners go on binge

Williamson County educators caved in this week to a local group called Moms for Liberty and removed a book from an elementary reading curriculum. The move came after the McMinn County School Board ousted a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Holocaust called “Maus.”

According to reports, it had “mild swearing” and “naked mice women,” those sexy things.

One of the big complaints in Williamson County was that the book dealt with seahorse reproduction. If they knew what it takes for real horses to get pregnant, they probably wouldn’t care about these little ocean creatures.

Moms For Liberty must not know how real horses get pregnant. (Photo: Getty Images)
Moms For Liberty must not know how real horses get pregnant. (Photo: Getty Images)

The report about “Maus” came the same day Gov. Lee proclaimed Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, recognizing the extermination of millions of Jews from 1933 to 1945 by Nazi Germany.

It must be noted one of the first things the Nazis did was burn books.

Moms for Liberty is also going after four other pieces of literature by refiling a complaint with the state Department of Education on “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington,” “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” “The Story of Ruby Bridges” and “Separate is Never Equal.”

Among other complaints, the group believes these books are too mature for young students. 

If that’s the case, can we please go back to Dick and Jane and maybe even Ned in the First Reader. My old baseball coach used to say we looked like “Ned in the First Reader” when we made a boneheaded play. For years I didn’t know what he was talking about. I just knew I didn’t want to look like Ned.

Apparently, these days coaches are going to say things like, “You look like MLK in the second reader!” and “You play ball like Ruby Bridges!”

Good grief.

Get your law license here, real cheap

If I have to write about Stephen Elliott of the Nashville Scene one more time, I’m going to start asking for a public relations fee.

But considering Elliott is an all-around good guy, I’m giving him the first two spots free.

Elliott turned some Twitter heads this week when he reported the state’s deputy attorney general sought to throw out his lawsuit against the state for covering up a multi-million dollar report by McKinsey & Co. by arguing he didn’t have standing.

Why didn’t he have standing to file the suit, you might be asking: Because he avers he is “a journalist and a resident of Davidson County, Tennessee.” But according to the filing, “it is a long established proposition that domicile, not residence, determines state citizenship.” Maybe he forgot to put his address in the initial lawsuit.

Did Tennessee set up an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office? The state’s deputy attorney general is quibbling over whether a journalist is a resident or a citizen when determining standing in a lawsuit.

It goes on to say, “One can, in fact, be a ‘resident’ in multiple jurisdictions, but a citizen in only one. Thus, by failing to plead his citizenship, Petitioner Elliott has failed to demonstrate his standing to bring this action.”

The first question is: When did the state of Tennessee set up its Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office? Second, how long does Elliott have to work at the Scene before he has to domicile in Nashville? Third, how many beers do I have to drink with Elliott at Von Elrod’s before he becomes a citizen? Fourth, is this the best argument the DA’s office can make to keep executive privilege intact? Fifth, how long will it take his attorney to amend the complaint?

Considering the number of lawsuits filed against the state and the Lee Administration, you’d think the AG’s office could come up with something stronger. This could be the lamest legal argument in history. They’ve been protecting a piece of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo that is a public record, without a doubt. And their best argument is: Stephen Elliott is wandering across the land like Kwai Chang Caine. And, yes, I had to look up his name, because all I could remember was, “Everybody was kung fu fighting /those cats were fast as lightning.”

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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