Stockard on the Stump: Governor goes off the rails with charter school comment

Plus: Harwell rises and John Rich on librarians in vans

February 25, 2022 6:11 am
Gov. Bill Lee at a Sept. 2 press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sept. 2, 2021–Gov. Bill Lee at a press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee might have gotten a little discombobulated Thursday when he wrapped up the press conference for his triumphant and “historic” funding formula proposal.

Asked whether his plan will divert public school funds to charter schools, which are being wrapped into the formula, the governor said, “Public schools are charter schools and charter schools are public schools. Thank you.” Then he folded his booklet and walked away.

Technically, charter schools are part of local school districts and the state’s Achievement School District and not necessarily because they want them because school board members believe they drain valuable resources from traditional schools. In many cases, the state forces districts to let them in. 

Clearly, they are not run by local school districts, which explains why many of the charter schools in Nashville have run into a litany of problems of the years, mostly by diverting money away from students into the pockets of the operators.

While the governor can get away with a technicality on that point, when he says, “Public schools are charter schools,” well, he’s off the mark. Most people would say he’s wrong, but I’m trying to be nice.

Maybe Lee meant to say initially that “charter schools are public schools” but got too far into a response he didn’t really want to make and wasn’t sure how to back up.

Or, maybe it was a Freudian slip, and he really does think “public schools are charter schools.” 

A line of thought is floating around the Capitol and Cordell Hull Building that the governor is using charter schools as a stepping stone to a vice presidential ticket. He’s tight with Betsy DeVos, the education secretary for former President Donald Trump, and her brother is connected to Hillsdale College, the Michigan-based school that Lee asked to start 100 charter schools in Tennessee. The president there said he could only do 50. But who’s counting?

Did Gov. Bill Lee commit a Freudian slip when he said at a Thursday press conference on his new education funding plan: “Public schools are charter schools and charter schools are public schools?”

Whatever the number, Hillsdale is making inroads in Tennessee – through the governor. 

Legislation in the General Assembly would “grease the skids” for them to proliferate. Mainly, it would enable them to bypass school boards and go straight to a state charter commission, appointed by the governor, after three rejections in three years and after approval of one charter school.

The measure was postponed for two weeks so an amendment could be tacked on. But opponents say it still contains the details they dislike.

Gov. Lee has not hidden his support for charters and vouchers for children to attend private schools since winning election. He usually says, however, they are only a part of the overall education system and that public schools remain the cornerstone.

But he might have let slip Thursday just exactly how he feels about public schools and charters. 

Sue, lawyer, sue!

Three Democrats, backed by the Tennessee Democratic Party, filed suit Wednesday against Republicans to overturn state Senate and House redistricting maps, claiming their work was done solely to keep a hold on their supermajority in the General Assembly. 

The filing in Davidson County Chancery Court by Akilah Moore, Telise Turner and Gary Wygant contends Republicans’ redistricting plans were made “largely out of view of the public” and without input from Democrats.

“These one-sided decisions denied voters any real opportunity to participate in – much less stop – fundamental changes to the process through which Tennessee voters choose their elected representatives,” the filing states.

First, the lawsuit claims the majority party divided more counties than necessary to create House districts with “roughly” equal populations. Second, it numbers some state Senate districts non-consecutively. Districts in the same counties are supposed to be numbered consecutively, in part, so candidates won’t go on the ballot in the same election year.

Regardless of motives, though, the plaintiffs claim the redistricting maps are “facially unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit does not involve complaints about the move to split Davidson County into three congressional districts, effectively leaving Democratic Rep. U.S. Jim Cooper no way to win re-election. Shortly after the governor signed the bills, Cooper announced he will step away in November.

The lawsuit could face a tough row, based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to leave these matters to the states. A recent ruling on a redistricting challenge in Alabama threw cold water on gerrymandering accusations. So cold that some wondered whether Democrats would follow through on their threats to sue.

A lawsuit also is expected from Democrats challenging the congressional plan. But it would likely be filed in federal court.

Republicans are confident their maps will hold up on court, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally points out Democrats failed to use consecutive numbering of Senate districts when they controlled the process.

Responding to questions about breaking Davidson County into three districts, McNally contends it wouldn’t be a majority minority district even if it were kept together.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Crossville Republican, contends the redistricting was “fair and constitutional.”

“It represents the distinctive voices of all Tennesseans, and every member had input in the process. The State Democratic Party has taken a bipartisan process and made it partisan by funding this feckless lawsuit,” Sexton said in a statement.

Democrats argue their participation was limited to seeing what their district would look like and where their home would lie. And, to be honest, the redistricting committee meetings did seem a little staged. But that appears to be Republicans’ prerogative, the way the game is played.

We’ll let the court decide, some day.

Harwell rises from the ashes

Former House Speaker Beth Harwell announced Thursday she will seek election to the 5th Congressional District seat, making it a crowded house in the newly hijacked district that looks like a cross between a Nashville scooter rider and T. Rex (not the band).

If Harwell can “bang a gong,” though, she’s got a fighting chance.

Meanwhile, Sen. Frank Nicely is pushing legislation that could eliminate two of her main competitors by placing residency requirements on congressional candidates.

Beth Harwell (Photo: Facebook)
Former Speaker of th House Beth Harwell (Photo: Facebook)

Former State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus and Williamson County businessman Robby Starbuck haven’t lived in Tennessee long enough to meet the three-year test in Nicely’s bill. Initially it was three terms.

As the measure goes to the Senate floor, Lt. Gov. McNally would prefer removal of immediacy in Nicely’s bill, but he says he could vote for it. Word has it the bill could do well in the House too.

Even if it has constitutional questions, passage could do enough to knock Ortagus and Starbuck out of the primary election long enough to give Harwell an edge in a Republican primary. The former has endorsements from former President Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while the latter has backing from far-right Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Ortagus said last week she can’t concern herself with the legislation, but folks such as Nicely would just as soon see “Gucci baggers” shop for congressional seats elsewhere.

That would leave Harwell to run against retired National Guard Brigadier Gen. Kurt Winstead and Williamson County businessman Baxter Lee in a Republican primary.

The question is: Does anyone in the newly-drawn 5th District remember or care about a moderate like Harwell anymore?

The political landscape has gone over the edge of flat earth since Harwell lost a gubernatorial run four years ago. With Nicely’s help, she might not have to find out the hard way.

Anti-union move stumbles

State Rep. Robin Smith delayed HB1856 until the final calendar of the House Banking & Consumer Affairs Subcommittee.

A known opponent of the United Auto Workers, Smith is sponsoring a measure that would stop state benefits to any business that fails to allow a union vote on a secret ballot. 

Smith’s bill is a reaction to the Legislature’s $900 incentive package to Ford Motor Co., which is set to start work soon on a $5.6 billion electric truck and battery plant called Blue Oval City where 5,800 people would work at the Memphis Regional Megasite.

It’s unclear whether Gov. Lee’s office got to her as the legislation was to be considered this week. But the Blue Oval City is Lee’s legacy, and even if she manages to pass it, the bill could become Lee’s first veto.

Librarians fall out of love

The attack on those lovers of literature escalated this week.

The Senate passed Lee’s legislation Thursday that would set up a process for the public to review school library books and ask for the removal of books deemed to contain obscene language. It’s likely to pass the House too.

It seems a few novels with nasty words caught the ire of the public and drove some people to start calling for librarians’ heads.

Rep. Scott Cepicky’s legislation, HB1944, goes a step further than the governor’s bill by ending an exception for public schools and employees for possession of obscene materials found harmful to minors. 

Anyone who allows a shady book into a school library could be criminalized.

Some used the word pornography, but that’s not the end of it.

Singer John Rich of the band Big & Rich graced Cordell Hull with his presence this week, testifying in favor of the bill and comparing librarians and teachers to perverts who drive around in a “white van” trying to entice children to ride away with them. (Why are we giving “white vans” a bad name?)

Would you trust this man with your library books? John Rich in Nashville in 2019. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

That aside, according to Rich, schools are “grooming” children for sexual activity by allowing books with nasty words or depictions into libraries, which he says should be subject to criminal penalties.

You’d think a guy who sings on stage as much as he does would be fairly calm.

But his voice shook a little as posed this question to the subcommittee: What’s the difference between a librarian putting a book with dirty words on a shelf and a guy in a “white van” calling children around to read a book?

“They can run away from the guy in the white van,” he said.

Of course, this comes from a guy who’s made big bucks off a song with the lyrics, “Save a horse, ride a cowboy.” But nobody cares about hypocrisy in Bullshit City. It’s just another day.

Whatever the case, Rich will likely return next week when more testimony is to be heard on this bill and a vote taken.

Legislators are calling him a “hero” and bending the knee. Thus, this has to be taken about as seriously as someone could take the antics of Ozzy Osbourne, who used to be a pretty good singer until he got so drunk he wound up face down in piss by the side of a swimming pool. Is it legal to say “piss” here? Damn, I already said “shit.” I guess I’m going to hell in a handbasket.


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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.