Stockard on the Stump: Voucher student numbers low with public schools already open

August 12, 2022 7:00 am
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A week into the 2022-23 school year and few families in Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts are seeking the vaunted private school vouchers the state is offering.

Only 203 families have applied for vouchers, according to the Tennessee Department of Education, even though the law allows up to 5,000 students to receive the voucher money, roughly $7,300, in the first year of what is expected to be a three-year pilot program. The number of students could increase by 5,000 in the following years.

Student applications were still coming in Thursday, and the state was still determining eligibility for all of them, meaning more than 200 students don’t know where they’ll be attending school this year. 

Simultaneously, 40 independent schools applied to participate in the program as of 11 a.m. Thursday and their eligibility is being reviewed, according to spokesman Brian Blackley.

It’s possible that the program isn’t as popular as the Gov. Bill Lee hoped. Or there could be any number of hold-ups.

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Davidson County Democrat who opposes the education savings account program, says parents whose children could be eligible for the program are probably working two jobs and don’t have time to haul their kids to a private school. Another factor working against the vouchers is the fact that most private schools charge a lot more for tuition than the state is offering. Thus, parents would have to tap savings accounts or take out loans.

“The answer’s not to take more away from a kid’s school. The answer is, let’s fully fund education one time in Tennessee and make those schools they consider failing better schools,” Mitchell says. “The only thing they’ve known is the stick. They’ve never tried the carrot.”

The education savings account program would provide vouchers for qualifying children from the Metro Nashville and Shelby districts, both of which have the largest number of “priority” schools in the state, to enroll in private schools and to pay for other costs.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg didn’t have enough information to make a cogent comment on the low participation when contacted this week. The Bristol Republican said he understands participating schools haven’t been approved yet.

“I’d be disappointed, because it is about school choice there for those schools and those parents who really need that opportunity,” Lundberg says.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally continues to support the program despite the low numbers.

“If only one child attending a failing school receives a better education under the program, it will have been worth it. The compressed timeline, driven by the court injunction, obviously played a role in applications. I am confident more will apply in the future. The point of a pilot program is to assess need, workability and success. This is the beginning of that process,” McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, says in a statement.

Despite being slow out of the blocks, a three-judge chancery court last week allowed the state to move forward with the program as litigation continues. 

Parents in the lawsuit, McEwen v. Lee, contend the voucher law is an unconstitutional diversion of money from public schools.

They were upset that the court refused to stop what they called a “rushed and illegal” plan to issue vouchers as the school year begins.

“This chaotic rollout will only harm students and schools and waste taxpayer dollars on an unconstitutional scheme,” says attorney Chris Wood, who represents the McEwen plaintiffs.

They argue private schools don’t have to meet the same standards as public schools and can discriminate against students on the basis of religion or LGBTQ status, in addition to refusing to provide special education services.

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled this summer the program doesn’t violate the state’s Home Rule Amendment. But more arguments are scheduled in September on the program’s constitutionality.

Maybe by then they’ll have more students taking public money to private schools, because the current numbers show this isn’t worth pursuing.

Sen. Heidi Campbell, the Democratic nominee for Tennessee's 5th Congressional District, launched her first salvo at Republican nominee and Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Heidi Campbell, the Democratic nominee for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, launched her first salvo at Republican nominee and Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Oil and water

The contrast is stark between the candidates for the newly-drawn dinosaur-looking district running across Middle Tennessee.

Republican lawmakers redrew the district to cut Davidson County into three congressional districts, cut out Democrats and give Republicans eight districts out of nine in the state.

The Democratic candidate, state Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville, launched her first salvo at the Republican nominee, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, this week saying she would vote to cap the cost of insulin on her first day in Congress.

“Andy Ogles won’t. He’s spent years of his life with the Koch brothers working against policies that protect our families from healthcare price gouging,” Campbell says.

U.S. Sens. Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn also took a pounding this week for voting against a $35 cap on insulin as part of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.  

Before that situation could take on a life of its own, FBI agents raided former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in that decrepit little slum, Palm Beach, Florida. The poor guy. It’s amazing he can cobble together 5 cents for bubble gum.

Ogles, like many other Republicans, didn’t say anything about insulin this week but came to Trump’s defense with a scathing rebuke of the feds.

“The Biden Department of Justice increasingly looks like a banana republic you would find in a third world cesspool where political payback and partisan persecution have replaced a fair and just system operating under the rule of law. Targeting political enemies to advance the interests of a failing presidency is not the way we expect our leaders to behave. Frankly, it’s a disgusting overreach that deserves the outrage of all decent and law-abiding Americans regardless of political affiliation,” Ogles says in a statement.

U.S. Sens. Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn also took a pounding this week for voting against a $35 cap on insulin as part of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.  Republican nominee for congress in Tennessee’s 5th District, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles didn’t say anything about insulin this week but came to Trump’s defense with a scathing rebuke of the feds.

The (former?) lobbyist for Americans for Prosperity further says he looks forward to being part of a House Republican majority that would hold these agencies accountable and restore them to their intended purpose.

Certainly, it would be helpful if the FBI would show everyone the evidence they presented to a judge to get the search warrant for Trump’s shack. 

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday he is asking the court to unseal the warrant and let people know what they found. 

But don’t hold your breath. The feds still haven’t said a word about the investigation into former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada or his ex-chief of staff, Cade Cothren, or state Rep. Todd Warner. 

Since they were raided in January 2021, we’ve learned quite a bit about their escapades by piecing together other investigations and criminal charges dealing with phony campaign vendors and political action committees designed to get back at Casada’s political enemies. 

It’s somewhat similar to Trump’s situation, because things start to add up. In addition to his connection to the Jan. 6 Capitol breach and charges involving his New York business dealings, the U.S. Archives claims Trump took boxes of classified documents with him when he left the White House, an offense that is now a felony and punishable by five years in prison, thanks to a law passed under Trump’s administration.

It’s easy to condemn the FBI for raiding Trump. But it’s not that simple to pigeonhole the feds.

For instance, even after Biden, a Democrat, took office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office continued to hammer away at Democratic state Sen. Katrina Robinson on fraud charges.

When Trump was in office, the FBI also reopened an investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal laptop for classified information, which would be pretty stupid. 

Former Vice President Mike Pence commended the feds for looking into Clinton’s laptop when that investigation started, yet he criticized the FBI this week for raiding Trump’s home. All this after Trump’s crazies were ready to kill him in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It just goes to show Republican red is thicker than water.

Inflation buster or big spending?

Also separating Ogles and Campbell is passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which the Democrat used as a tool to hype the production of electric vehicles in Tennessee and extension of a $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit approved as part of the bill.

Campbell points out Tennessee is the top southeastern state for elective vehicle jobs and investment with General Motors, Nissan and Volkswagen building electric cars here and Ford set to follow with the $5.6 billion BlueOval City project with SK Innovation for a new electric truck and battery facility.

Naturally, Republicans panned the legislation as a costly tax-and-spend measure that will force the nation’s biggest companies to pay more taxes, as if anyone likes corporate America.

As a quick reminder, the Republican-controlled Legislature overwhelmingly approved $100 million in incentives to Ford – at Lee’s request – and jumped through hoops in a special session last year to make sure it didn’t trip up the giant automaker with COVID-19 measures prohibiting mask requirements in manufacturing facilities. A Ford official said such a move raised serious concerns, and state legislators scurried like mice with a giant cat on the loose to make sure their bills satisfied Henry Ford’s progeny.

To no avail, Americans for Prosperity – Tennessee opposed the tax incentives for Ford.

Flanked by family members, GOP congressional nominee Andy Ogles told supporters Thursday he's ready to "get DC out of Tennessee." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Flanked by family members, GOP congressional nominee Andy Ogles told supporters at his Aug. 4, 2022 election party that he’s ready to “get DC out of Tennessee.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

In advance of a Friday House vote on the bill, Ogles issued a statement Thursday afternoon condemning what he called the “falsely-named” act, saying it would do nothing to stop inflation while raising taxes on working people, wasting money on “green new deal boondoggles, cutting American energy independence and hiring new IRS agents to “harass” people instead of putting extra agents on the Southern border. He noted that even former President Barack Obama said increasing taxes during a recession is “idiocy.”

A fact check of similar claims shows few, if any, people making less than $400,000 a year will be affected, though a minimum 15% tax on large corporations could wind up costing workers if their wages are lowered. The hiring of IRS workers is supposed to off-set the loss of agency employees in recent years and upcoming retirements, not cause harassment of middle-income earners, according to an Associated Press fact check.

Another Russian connection

Ogles is represented by Kline Preston IV, a Nashville attorney who did legal work for Sen. Blackburn and is tight with Russian banker Alexander Torshin, a prominent political figure who established relationships with the National Rifle Association through Preston.

The Nashville attorney extolled the virtues of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Russian people in a Nashville interview, saying they share values with Tennesseans. As Sting said, “the Russians love their children too.” (Maybe he looked into the eyes of Putin the same way former President George W. Bush did and found that, yes, Putin has a soul. It’s the same soul that led to multiple war crimes in the invasion of Ukraine.)

The Tennessee Lookout reported in August 2020 that Preston’s name surfaced in a 966-page Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Russian interference in the presidential election and political process.

Ogles’ campaign didn’t respond to questions asking why he retained Preston, considering his Russian links.

Kline Preston, a Nashville attorney who has extolled the virtues of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, is representing Republican congressional nominee Andy Ogles in a legal case over late campaign finance filings. Preston has also conducted legal work for U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn in the past.

Preston’s relationship with Torshin and his associate, Maria Butina, caught the eye of senators, even though Preston wasn’t identified as committing crimes or playing a role in election interference.

All he did was invite Torshin to America in 2012 to observe our presidential election. How magnanimous. This enabled Torshin to develop friendships with conservatives and build a web of support within the NRA.

Butina started a Russian gun rights organization but was sentenced in 2019 to 18 months in prison for conspiring to access the NRA and other U.S. groups without registering with the Justice Department. (This would have been under the Trump Administration’s Justice Department, another example that federal authorities don’t care who’s in the White House.)

After all, Trump was cozy with Putin and the Russians and didn’t make any bones about it. He continues to maintain he would have been able to cut a deal with Putin to avert the Ukraine invasion. Maybe so. But would we lose our souls to do it? If you don’t have a soul, though, it really doesn’t matter.

Late-filing flap

A former congressional staffer for ex-Congressman Jimmy Duncan filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Ogles shortly before the Aug. 4 election in which he won the Republican primary, according to a Main Street Nashville report.

Jodi Chipps Eastgate, a colleague of Ogles when he worked for House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign a decade ago, registered the complaint.

Ogles filed his second-quarter report with the FEC a week late and then his fundraising numbers were much lower than the amount he announced in May.

The complaint claims Ogles filed his report late to cover up the fact his fundraising fell far short of the amount he made public this spring.

Ogles’ attorney, Kline Preston, characterized the complaint as “frivolous,” according to the Main Street article and threatened to sue if the story was published.

If this were Russia, he might have a case.

New ACLU leader

The American Civil Liberties Union announced this Thursday that Nashville attorney Kathy Sinback will serve as its executive director, replacing longtime leader Hedy Weinberg.

Sinback played a role in seeking clemency for Cyntoia Brown Long, who was convicted of murdering a man who solicited sex from her but made a transformation and received clemency from former Gov. Bill Haslam.

ACLU-TN executive director Kathy Sinback
Kathy Sinback, (Photo:Submitted)

Sinback has been the Davidson County Juvenile Court administrator since 2014, working on reforms there to make the system better. She also worked as a senior attorney in the Metropolitan Department of Law and was a member of the General Assembly’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice.

ACLU-TN board member Paula Williams calls her a “proven leader and well-respected advocate” in the state.

“We are tremendously excited for Kathy to bring her vision, talents and energy to the helm of the ACLU of Tennessee at this critical time in our nation,” Williams says.

Oh, and one more thing

Last week’s Stockard on the Stump gave a bit of an analysis of Andy Ogles’ win over former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead in the Republican primary.

The column left out one key thing.

You might remember, Republican Sen. Frank Niceley made a big push for legislation to stop relative newcomers to the state from running for Congress. The measure was clearly designed to keep Trump-endorsed Morgan Ortagus and Franklin video businessman Robby Starbuck from running.

Only one member of the Senate, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, voted against the bill, which also passed the House with ease. I have since dubbed Gardenhire as “Dr. No” for that vote and several other matters.

A push by legislative Republicans to keep Tennessee newcomers Morgan Ortagus and Robby Starbuck off the GOP congressional ballot may have backfired, as two moderate candidates may have canceled each other out.

Gov. Lee allowed the bill to take effect without his signature, limiting its impact on this race. But members of the Tennessee Republican Party’s Executive Committee and Chairman Scott Golden decided Starbuck and Ortagus didn’t hold bonafide Republican credentials.

The result: an election in which Harwell and Winstead canceled each other out in the race for the moderate Republican vote while Ogles vaulted to the win with the gerrymandered right-wing vote.

In this case, mainstream Republicans didn’t get what they wanted. Instead, they probably got what they deserved.




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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.