Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Lee partners with Michigan college for civics – excuse me – charters

February 4, 2022 10:16 am
Despite complaints from the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Gov. Bill Lee says he will sign a financial transparency bill into law. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Despite complaints from the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Gov. Bill Lee says he will sign a financial transparency bill into law. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee confirmed Thursday Hillsdale College, a conservative Michigan institution with ties to former President Trump’s administration, is making a big push to expand its influence in Tennessee with multiple charter schools.

The governor said he met with Hillsdale’s president and asked the college to bring 100 charter schools to Tennessee. The Hillsdale official was heard on a recording saying 50 would be the more likely number.

“That’ll be up to Hillsdale,” Lee said in a Thursday press conference. 

Lee announced in his State of the State address a plan to partner with Hillsdale College in Michigan for creation of a K-12 civics program. 

Conveniently, he left out details about meeting with Hillsdale’s president and asking the college to bring more charters to the state. But he expounded on it, somewhat, Thursday.

Lee didn’t address concerns about the possibility of public funds going to an out-of-state or religious-affiliated school, which Hillsdale is. Instead, he acknowledged the state wants to create strong public schools, and that includes charters.

“And Hillsdale, that specific partnership is about engaging Hillsdale and public, classical, secular education. High-quality charter schools are an important part of the equation in our public school system and we welcome charter operators, nonprofit charter operators, from around the country to improve the public school system in our state, and that includes classical education charter schools like Hillsdale,” Lee said.

Hillsdale has sought approval in two districts already, including Williamson County Schools, according to reports.

Gov. Lee said he met with the president of Hillsdale College, a private religious school with ties to former President Donald Trump’s administration. Lee asked the president to back 100 charter schools in Tennessee; Hillsdale’s president was heard in a recording saying 50 would be more like it.

The college released a statement this week saying through a partnership with American Classical Education, it will start offer “classical charter” schools in Tennessee and has filed applications in Madison, Montgomery and Rutherford counties, with plans to open in 2023.

It claims Hillsdale does not receive funding from the charter schools through ACE, a new charter management organization.

“When Gov. Lee visited Hillsdale College, he was impressed with the college’s ongoing efforts in supporting K-12 schools with classical curriculum and training for school boards, leaders and teachers,” said Kathleen O’Toole, assistant provost for K-12 education. “Here at the college’s K-12 Education office, we help schools to provide the type of education that all Americans both need and deserve – one that is rooted in the liberal arts and science, offers a firm grounding in civic virtue, and cultivates moral character.”

Democrats are not impressed, accusing the governor of using the civics plan to give Hillsdale an “inside track” in the state.

If local school boards reject charter operators, under a law passed in Lee’s first year, charters can go to the state charter organizing committee he appoints and seek approval to open shop.

A proponent of school choice, including charters and private school vouchers, Lee is putting $32 million in the fiscal 2022-23 budget for charter school construction.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of Nashville calls the governor’s move a “bait and switch” tactic.

He even questions the $1 billion Gov. Lee is promising to public schools in the next budget year. About $125 million is to go toward teacher pay, though most are disputing whether it’ll reach their pocketbooks. Another $500 million is targeted for college and technical education, and $250 is designed to relocate schools from floodplains, including those in Waverly, which was devastated by flooding and deaths last year. That total is planned for K-12 schools in fiscal 2023-24, once the Legislature approves a new funding formula.

Money for charters is in the document, too, even though experts say charter schools divert money from traditional public schools.

“It’s not to really fund our education system. It’s to fund that college collaboration,” Dixie said.

“They’ll continue to take away from the traditional public schools. That’s what it’s about. I think he was not honest about what he was saying, and he misled the public,” Dixie said.

Reps consider Memphis’ open Senate seat

Second-term state Rep. London Lamar was “disheartened” this week by the Senate expulsion of Memphis Sen. Katrina Robinson, the first person ever ousted from the upper chamber.

“The situation regarding Sen. Robinson is very unfortunate,” Lamar says. Questions about the lack of due process were extremely bothersome, she adds.

So was first-term Rep. Torrey Harris. 

“Shelby County was deprived of an incredible public servant in Sen. Katrina Robinson,” Harris says.

Still, they both see an opportunity to fill an empty seat in the Senate, instead of leaving District 33 without representation. 

Consequently, Lamar and Harris are mulling candidacy for the post, which will be filled by the Shelby County Commission once Gov. Bill Lee officially declares the seat vacant.

State Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, could be vying for the same vacant Senate seat. (Photo: John Partipilo)
State Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, could be vying for the same vacant Senate seat. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Memphis Democrats, two of the youngest in the House of Representatives, watched from the Senate balcony as senators voted 27-5 to remove Robinson, a month before her sentencing hearing on two felony wire fraud convictions amounting to about $3,500. Another key factor in her removal was a pretrial diversion agreement she entered after federal prosecutors charged her with bilking a potential student at her nursing school out of more than $14,000.

Robinson’s supporters believe the Senate should have waited until her March 3 sentencing hearing to make sure the judge upholds the final two counts after 46 were dismissed.

Now that the decision is done, though, it’s time to act, Lamar and Harris say.

Half of Lamar’s District 91 lies in Senate District 33, and since Robinson’s expulsion, Lamar says people have been asking her to run for the open seat, including Shelby County commissioners. Harris says he’s also hearing from family, friends and community supporters and expects to make a decision soon.

“I think it’s important a Black woman does continue to hold this seat, given some of our biggest voting demographics in Shelby County are Black women,” she says.

Says Harris, “Right now we need a strong voice who can carry on the important work of strengthening our middle class by fighting for student funding, affordable healthcare and justice.”

Lamar and Harris were put in a bind recently when the House and Senate passed redistricting plans that placed their residences in the same House district. They are the youngest members from Shelby County, and seniority rules the roost there.

Questions were even raised about whether Lamar asked veteran Rep. Barbara Cooper, who is 92, to step aside.

Oddly enough, Lamar and Harris are both considering a move that would put them in the same position they were in a week ago: set to battle each other.

It’s fair to say both would have a much easier time running for re-election this year in a seat without a Democratic opponent.

It will take seven votes on the 13-member Shelby County Commission to win the appointment. Maybe they should huddle before they step on each other. 

Run out of town on a rail

Now-former Sen. Robinson was asking for 30 days to see whether Judge Sheryl Lipman would keep the final two fraud convictions in place. She promised to step down if the judge kept the convictions and signed off on the final sentencing.

Robinson’s supporters considered that a reasonable request.

But Pharaoh’s heart would not soften.

The Senate found she broke the Senate ethics code, although it wasn’t exactly clear which part of the code she violated. Maybe the part about moral turpitude, though several other senators have had their own turpitudinous situations in the last few years, including Sen. Brian Kelsey, who faces a five-count indictment for breaking federal campaign finance law by allegedly funneling $70,000 from his state account through two nonprofit entities to his failed 2016 congressional race.

And there are more. Sen. Joey Hensley lost his medical license after getting caught prescribing opioids to his nurse, who was also his cousin.

Sen. Joey Hensley lost his medical license after getting caught prescribing opioids to his nurse, who was also his cousin. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Joey Hensley lost his medical license after getting caught prescribing opioids to his nurse, who was also his cousin. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Some senators urged leadership to wait, arguing they would get nothing but bad publicity for expelling a Black woman. Robinson called the proceeding a “lynching” and “racist.” 

Nevertheless, every Republican voted to go along with leadership and oust.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally was adamant the Senate had to remove Robinson rather than wait a month. The Senate Ethics Committee received a request to postpone for a week, but the Senate waited a full 10 days, McNally pointed out Thursday, partially because of the governor’s State of the State.

“Technically, she was convicted by a jury … of four felonies and a judge allowed two to stand, and there were no appeals left unless there would be new evidence presented,” McNally says. “ … We felt we needed to go ahead with the conviction on two felonies.”

More than likely, they didn’t want her to go a full four-year term and get a pension and benefits.

The Wednesday hearing wasn’t without its moments.

McNally and several other senators who ultimately expelled Robinson accidentally voted to delay the expulsion hearing until March 7 in a 16-16 vote. One more vote, and she’d still be there. They were confused, thinking the vote to delay the matter was a procedural move.

If Democratic Sen. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville had been present Wednesday, they would have postponed this for another month with 17 votes. But Gilmore was out sick this week with COVID-19 and missed the Wednesday gala event.

The coronavirus strikes again.

Book banning en vogue

House Speaker Cameron Sexton scoffs at the notion that books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” could be banned in Tennessee.

But that’s exactly what happened in a Seattle, Washington school district where the literary classic by Harper Lee was removed from the ninth-grade reading curriculum after parents and students complained that it was insensitive to a Black student. Never mind the fact it portrays history in a realistic manner and is one of the greatest pieces of American literature ever written.

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville (Photo: John Partipilo)
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville (Photo: John Partipilo)

We’re still suffering today from cases in which Black men are wrongly accused of a crime, convicted, then imprisoned. And, yes, sometimes they’re killed before they get to prison. Does anyone recall George Floyd?

They used to call it lynching, a term already broached in this column, but that could hurt people’s feelings these days.

Sexton and House Majority Leader William Lamberth defend the governor’s legislation that would create a process for parents to find out what books are in their children’s school libraries and to  learn more about the curriculum. 

This comes on the heels of reports the McMinn County Sdchool Board put the clamps on “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust because of curse words and pictures of mice deemed too sexy for my shirt. A Williamson County Schools committee also removed “Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech from its elementary school curriculum after the group called Moms for Liberty opposed it. The same group is backing removal of books such as “Martin Luther King Goes to Washington” from the district’s second-grade reading list. 

Lamberth says he has absolutely no worries this will lead to book bans. He simply wants more parents to get involved with librarians, principals and school boards in deciding what books are appropriate for kids.

The “nightmare” situation, he says, is for a third-grader to pull a book off a shelf, then go home and start spouting curse words. Parents might respond, we don’t talk like that, where did you hear those words, only to find out they came from a library book. Never mind that most kids learn to cuss from other kids and their parents.

Sexton said he has no intent to ban books, but considering a Mt. Juliet preacher held a book burning Wednesday night and some groups have already been successful in removing books from reading lists, it’s already happening.

Asked about the potential for “Mockingbird and Huck Finn to be removed from reading lists, Sexton says, “I think people are going to use the extremes. You used ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to try to prove a point. I get what you’re doing, Sam. But what you really need to do is look on social media. Look at the excerpts. They’re pornographic.”

I guess the point is this has already happened and the question is whether this legislation could cause it to happen here. 

Considering a Mt. Juliet preacher held a book burning Wednesday night and some groups have been successful in removing books from reading lists, then it is already happening.

No banning, but removal is OK

Speaker Sexton insists, saying “We’re not trying to ban books,” but based on their content, some of them “need to be removed.”

Asked what books should be axed, the Speaker referred reporters to a list of books tweeted out by singer John Rich, who met recently with the governor. I looked for some of them but couldn’t find a definitive list, which is irrelevant, because I might not agree.

More than likely, this is what spurred Gov. Lee to push the legislation inserting parents into the book oversight process. I wonder what Dolly Parton would say about this, since she has the Imagination Library, a program that provides books for low-income children. But that’s another question.

The governor would only say Thursday he agrees with parents who want a more active role in their children’s education, and he agrees with the need for a process.

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton said he’s not trying to ban books, just remove them, referring reporters to a list of inappropriate books apparently tweeted out by singer John Rich.

And, don’t we have professional educators who decide what books go into public school libraries? I believe they’re called librarians, and they go to Tennessee schools to earn a degree.

Parents can already go to school districts and complain about books. This is painfully clear, and under the governor’s legislation, the General Assembly could open the door for even more attacks on school libraries.

Legislators have been complaining for years that only a third of Tennessee’s third-graders read at grade level. If that’s the case, 66% of them probably can’t read these books. So we’re removing them for those 33% who can at least spell “cat” if you give them the c and the t.

Incidentally, House Bill 1944, sponsored by Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, would punish any school personnel for making pornographic material available to school children. Apparently, it’s time to lock up those librarians and throw away the key.

Remember little Joe Clyde

Lawmakers are sponsoring the Joe Clyde Daniels Act, a measure making it more difficult for a convicted murderer to be granted parole if they refuse to show law enforcement the location of their victim’s remains.

The measure sponsored by Republican Reps. Michael Curcio and Mary Littleton and GOP Sen. Kerry Roberts require the board of parole to consider “the extent to which the offender obstructed or continues to obstruct the ability of law enforcement  to recover the remains of the victim” when deciding whether to grant parole. 

The 5-year-old boy’s father, Joseph Daniels, was convicted of first-degree murder in the child’s death after the boy disappeared fro his Dickson home in April 2018. 

Curcio, a Dickson resident, called the murder “an unspeakable tragedy” that “devastated” the community.

“Victims deserve justice as well as a proper burial and this legislation will help ensure that is possible,” he says.

Littleton, also of Dickson, says it’s “absolutely heartbreaking” the child hasn’t received a proper burial. She hopes the legislation will help other families “find the closure they so desperately need.”

More medical cannabis talk

State Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, filed House Joint Resolution 742 this week, proposing an amendment to the state Constitution allowing people to use medical cannabis for medical conditions such as cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. The state would oversee cultivation, process and sales. (No more nickel bags on the corner.)

It would also put a 4% tax on retail sales of cannabis, with part of the money going to pay for veterans’ healthcare.

“Tennesseans should have access to a comprehensive medical cannabis program in our state. No Tennesseans suffering from an approved medical condition should have to drive hours out of state to purchase medical cannabis,” he said in a statement. “Furthermore, Tennesseans should be able to legally grow and sell medical cannabis here in Tennessee.”

Putting the 'joint' in joint resolution: Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Putting the ‘joint’ in joint resolution: Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Powell contends voters should have the chance to decide the issue, thus the constitutional question, which could go on the next gubernatorial ballot following passage in two legislative sessions.

Two lawmakers have already sponsored legislation just to put a non-binding question on this year’s ballot about medical marijuana. But one senator told me in an off-hand remark, it didn’t have a prayer. 

If that’s the case, Rep. Powell better start working the Senate, as well as the House, because this Legislature doesn’t like weed. People outside the halls of the Cordell Hull Building, though, tell me the stuff being grown in Tennessee for cannabidiol is already pretty potent.

I guess it’s better to be “high and dry” than not high at all.

 

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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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