Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: State jumps on vouchers after court lifts injunction

July 15, 2022 6:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee during a Wednesday media avaliablilty in Nashville. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee during a Wednesday media avaliablilty in Nashville failed to refute Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee finally got to say something besides “I love teachers” this week when a three-judge panel vacated an injunction against the governor’s Education Savings Account program.

No pesky reporters asking questions such as, “Are you going to disavow the idiotic statements of Hillsdale President Larry Arnn?” The college president who wants to start 50 to 100 charter schools in Tennessee infamously referred to colleges of education as the “dumbest” parts of the “dumbest” universities in the country.

Without any scheduled public events, Lee was allowed to relish the top achievement of his administration: turning state money over to private schools.

And he plans to do it quickly.

“Today the court removed the final roadblock to getting Memphis and Nashville families additional options for high-quality education,” Lee said in a Wednesday statement. “Starting today, we will work to help eligible parents enroll this school year, as we ensure Tennessee families have the opportunity to choose the school that they believe is best for their child.”

Davidson County Chancellor Anne Martin, who initially ruled the program unconstitutional, will consider other matters in the case with Circuit Judge Tammy Harrington of Blount County and Circuit Judge Valerie Smith of Shelby County.

Chancellor Anne Martin. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee State Courts/)
Chancellor Anne Martin. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee State Courts.)

But ESAs are moving forward, and the Department of Education is to make resources available to parents in the coming days.

That means with Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, both set to start Aug. 8, parents of up to 5,000 qualifying students could be pulling their children out of public schools, taking state money and shipping them to private schools. 

Considering the state’s struggles with technology – for example, a snafu with its unemployment system last week – making everything run perfectly will be tough.

Department of Education spokesman Brian Blackley noted Wednesday the injunction required the state to pause all work on the ESA program; therefore, questions about timing and whether it would be ready by the start of the school year in August “would be answerable ONLY if the department acted inappropriately during the course of litigation, which has not been the case.”

“With today’s lifting of the injunction, the department is excited to re-start work to plan for implementation of the ESA program to provide additional options for high-quality education to Tennessee students and families,” he said.

If that’s the case, Lee has much more confidence in the department’s ability to roll out the program than even the department does. Either that, or they’ve been secretly working on it.

Meanwhile, Democrats who voted against vouchers condemned the vacating of the injunction, saying public money shouldn’t go to send students to private schools.

“But thanks to a state Supreme Court decision that circumvented years of judicial precedent for political expedience, Gov. Bill Lee’s extreme agenda to defund our public schools is coming to fruition,” said Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Brandon Puttbrese. “Gov. Lee is peddling false hope to families who, for years, have deserved better state funding for their public schools. Lee’s voucher scheme won’t come close to covering tuition at the best private schools, but it will steal real resources from public school students in need.”

Metro Nashville officials have argued it could cost the school district tens of millions of dollars. But in its infinite wisdom, the Supreme Court determined the Home Rule Provision doesn’t apply in this case, even though the program is made only for Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts. Under state law, Metro and Shelby governing bodies or their voters should have been able to decide whether they wanted the voucher program. 

But the court decided the Home Rule Amendment doesn’t apply because, somehow, Metro Nashville is separate from the school district, even though its charter says otherwise and it levies local taxes to pay for much of the school district’s operations.

This ain’t over

For those who’ve been asleep for three years, the governor’s voucher program squeaked through to passage only after now-former House Speaker Glen Casada held the vote board open for nearly 45 minutes to break a tie in April 2019.

He worked the chamber desperately, because Republicans are nearly as scared of vouchers as Democrats, and finally persuaded Republican Rep. Jason Zachary to change his vote with the guarantee Knox County would be removed as a voucher school district. The same promise was made for Hamilton County too.

Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston: Reports overhearing former Speaker Glen Casada offer to talk to Gov. Bill Lee about a National Guard promotion in exchange for a vote. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston (Photo: John Partipilo)

Numerous lawmakers said Casada’s then-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, asked them what it would take for them to vote for the voucher program. Lee also phoned several lawmakers to try to persuade them to support his bill that day.

The biggest bombshell came from Rep. Kent Calfee, a voucher opponent who is leaving the Legislature. He told the Tennessee Lookout this year he heard Casada – while they were on the House balcony that day – say he would call the governor and see if he could give Rep. John Mark Windle, an Independent from Livingston, the rank of general in the National Guard in exchange for his vote. Casada, of course, has denied it.

The governor has repeatedly said he doesn’t know what Calfee is talking about, even though the Kingston Republican described a meeting in the governor’s office where Lee said Calfee was making him look bad, then gave him a hug after Calfee said he was telling the truth.

Several lawmakers have told me they have more trust in Calfee than the governor.

Oh yeah, did I mention the voucher vote also led to an FBI investigation, which could be ongoing? We’ll find out soon whether any more indictments are coming.

Charter showdown looms

House Education Administration Chairman Mark White said this week Hillsdale’s plans for charter schools in Tennessee are “shattered.”

The East Memphis Republican  seemed pretty genuine in his disgust for Larry Arnn’s secretly-recorded statements at a recent reception. Even though White sponsored the bill setting up a charter school commission with the ability to overrule local school boards’ decisions to reject charters, he said “the damage is done” for Hillsdale and noted their hopes of opening charters are dead when the Legislature returns in January.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, addressing the House of Representatives in April 2022. Chair of the House Education Administration Committee, White said plans for Hillsdale College to operate charter schools in Tennessee are "shattered." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, addressing the House of Representatives in April 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

It might not take long to find out whether the charter school commission is taking orders from White or Gov. Lee.

The Clarksville/Montgomery County School Board recently turned down a Hillsdale charter application, and the Rutherford County School Board is set to discuss one.

Outgoing state Rep. Jason Hodges, D-Clarksville, said this week he’s hearing the charter commission is ready to kill the Hillsdale request in Clarksville. He’s not guaranteeing it, though.

It’ll be hard for board members appointed by the governor to go against him such a short time after being given their positions of power.

The other question is whether White and other lawmakers outraged by the governor’s refusal to reject Arnn’s statements will be mad come 2023 or whether he can buy their love.

Out of town again

As stated, Gov. Lee held no announced public appearances this week and, thus, no more opportunities for the press corps to question his allegiance to Hillsdale College.

But he did have time to fly to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to attend an event with Republican governors and major donors for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is considering a run for the White House in 2024. Most believe Lee has his eye on a vice presidency and possibly a presidential run in 2028.

According to a report, Lee and others enjoyed an informal “get to know you” session complete with drinks and cigars while hanging out with DeSantis.

More than likely, they inhaled.

In Williamson County, GOP challenger to Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson is putting up a strong fight and even called out Uber-operative Ward Baker: Is that a kraken Humble wants to awake this close to the election?

What inflation?

The cost of buying gas, homes, groceries and just about everything else might have hit a 40-year high. But, clearly, lots of people have plenty of cash on hand to influence elections, based on the donations to political candidates.

In a key race for Williamson County’s District 23 pitting Republican state Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson against Gary Humble, founder of Tennessee Stands, Johnson raised $181,720 this quarter, spent $146,998 and has $378,573 in the bank as early voting begins. Humble, who started the quarter with only $12,000 in his account, raised $123,955 this quarter, spent $98,981 and has $36,968 to spend as the Aug. 4 primary closes in.

After getting criticized in independently-funded mailers, Humble made some pretty scurrilous comments recently, accusing Johnson’s campaign coordinator Ward Baker of illegal coordination with political action committees. He said Baker does it all the time, and cited a complaint filed when he ran U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s campaign. Baker did not respond to a request for comment about the complaint, which was dismissed for lack of evidence, or Humble’s statements.

Gary Humble (Photo: submitted)
Gary Humble (Photo: submitted)

The question is whether Humble really wants to awaken the Kraken in the waning days of an election, in which he appears to be putting up a bit of a fight.

In the House District 52 Democratic primary in Nashville, Justin Jones started with $12,300, raised $49,415 and spent $18,535, leaving him with $42,182 in the final three weeks. His opponent, Delishia Porterfield, started the quarter with $9,805, raised $10,729 and spent only $1,265, leaving her with $19,267 to campaign in the final days.

It’s a pretty good sign for Jones, who has been laying the groundwork for a political run for years.

If Republicans think Jones was a thorn in their side as an advocate for removing the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust and protesting conservative action, imagine what it’s going to be like dealing with him as a colleague. They won’t be able to ignore him completely anymore.

Take your dome and shove it

Word surfaced recently that Republican lawmakers want to punish Democrat-controlled Metro Nashville for the council’s refusal to vote for bringing the Republican National Convention to town.

Although Councilman Robert Swope could revive his ordinance, if it fails, talk is the Legislature will hold a special session to skip the council and work with the Convention and Visitors Corp. and set up its own security plan for Music City to play host to some 40,000 screaming convention goers.

(There’s even some discussion about a special session to allow National Guard members to avoid a COVID-19 vaccination. So much for taking orders. Gov. Lee has sent his own letter to the feds telling them Guardsmen don’t need no stinkin’ vaccine.)

Getting back on the RNC deal, as one Republican legislator said, he’d rather have hundreds of happy conventioneers than a bunch of drunk bachelorettes.

But council members, in opposing an RNC visit, have raised the specter of dangerous protests and general offensive behavior as part of the fallout from the Roe v. Wade decision and numerous other conflicts nationwide and locally.

As a result, Republican leaders are broaching several potential ways to retaliate against Metro. One is to stop state participation in a road along the Cumberland River’s east bank where a major business development is shaping up.

Yet another could be withholding $500 million in bond notes for a $2.2 billion Titans domed stadium project, despite approval in the state budget.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper at a recent press conference. (Photo: Metro Nashville News)
Nashville Mayor John Cooper. (Photo: Metro Nashville)

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally expressed extreme disappointment in the council’s recent decision, as well as Mayor John Cooper’s refusal to advocate for the convention.

“He is hopeful they reconsider” so questions about withdrawing the $500 million bond note “remain hypothetical,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider said.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton noted the Legislature is watching the council’s actions.

Republicans clashed over the funding mechanism earlier this year, but leadership won out, touting the benefit of a stadium that could be used for events year-long, instead of just eight to 10 football games and a handful of concerts and other clashes that depend on good weather.

Apparently, some folks are still smarting over the rainout of Garth Brooks’ concert. And they want to bring Wrestlemania to Nashville.

The problem with threatening to take back the $500 million bond plan is that most Nashvillians don’t give a rat’s bunkus. They figure punishment is par for the course.

Sure, they’d be happy with a domed stadium. But if the Legislature reneges on the money that’s just one less construction project to worry about in Nashville.

Would the Titans pull out and leave town without the promise of new digs? Well, the Oilers left Houston, so – as they say – nothing is off the table.

Do they really want to risk running off the Titans just to spite Metro? This one could take some introspection.

“He sent me searching to find my love/ He sent me searching, I said Lord up above.”

 

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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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