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Fumbling the ball on the one-yard line


Fumbling the ball on the one-yard line

Apr 24, 2024 | 11:01 am ET
By Bill Freeman
Fumbling the ball on the one-yard line
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, third from left, with Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Gov. Bill Lee and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, at the November 2023 rollout of Lee's universal school voucher program. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Dead in the water.”  “Chances look increasingly grim.” “Less than optimistic.” 

“On the ropes.” “Stuck in neutral—if not dead.” 

The local news reports that contain the above quotes about Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program have all focused on one thing:  the fate of the school voucher program that has been the capstone of Lee’s governmental platform.  The Tennessean, Tennessee Lookout and WPLN News are the authors of the above quotes, but they all point to the same issue:  Lee has been unable to get this ball across the finish line. 

What struck me most about this issue was not that the school voucher program was stuck in neutral and has recently been declared “dead in the water.” It was the fact that our second-term Republican governor, with his GOP supermajority in the Tennessee General Assembly, our two GOP U.S Senators, a GOP-led Congressional delegation and the entire fleet of far-right super PACs have been unable to get Lee’s pet legislation passed.  

Simply put, Gov. Bill Lee backed the wrong horse in this race: Why would he prioritize a program as controversial, unproven and risk as school vouchers?

It should have been a slam-dunk in such a scenario. What does it say about our governor that he was unable to get this legislation through both chambers during his second term in office?  He has been championing the belief that siphoning public tax dollars away from public schools would be of benefit to our schools ever since he first started on the campaign trail, but it has become quite clear that the general public and our elected officials are wary of this issue — preferring instead to endlessly debate without calling for a vote or even moving the legislation out of committee.  

Simply put, Lee backed the wrong horse in this race.  With so many other necessary and challenging issues to address at the state level, why would Lee prioritize such a highly controversial, unproven and risky policy initiative like school vouchers?  It doesn’t make sense. Why not work to improve existing public schools, adolescent mental health or community programs to support families and parents struggling to make ends meet? Does a family whose income is 500 percent higher than the income of a family at the federal poverty limit honestly need $7,000 so their children can get a coupon for private school? That is what the legislation under debate had been offering.  

What has happened to Lee’s plans to fight Tennessee’s opioid epidemic? What is the latest legislation to support rural Tennesseans? What happened to criminal justice reform? What about gun safety measures? Increase in availability and economic infrastructure to encourage trade schools and technical and vocational programs? We’ve heard precious little about these policy initiatives.  It seems that the noise of school vouchers has grown so loud that it has silenced the progress on anything else.  

It certainly did spell trouble. Clearly it spelled trouble for the fate of school vouchers.  But does it also spell trouble for Lee’s future attempts to push far-right partisan legislation through? At this point, that appears to be the case.