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Stockard on the Stump: Gear up for private-school voucher 2.0 (or 3.0)

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Stockard on the Stump: Gear up for private-school voucher 2.0 (or 3.0)

Jun 14, 2024 | 6:01 am ET
By Sam Stockard
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Stockard on the Stump: Gear up for private-school voucher 2.0 (or 3.0)
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Gov. Bill Lee, accompanied by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, left, at a press conference at which he announced a plan to let parents use public funds for private schools. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee is traversing the state in search of private-school voucher support, promising to make it the main point of contention – again – when the 114th General Assembly convenes in 2025.

(Gee whiz, Toto, we can hardly wait for lawmakers to stumble all over each other. Disregard that man behind the curtain.)

Even with this big push, it’s not clear whether his pet initiative will find a path to victory. Will we see more friction between the House and Senate because neither one really wants to take it up, or will they negotiate a smooth deal over the summer?

“The governor’s entitled to spend his summer as he likes, but that voucher vacation isn’t gonna be good for Tennessee,” Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said.

Even though endorsing pro-voucher lawmakers could help the governor pass his major initiative, Republican Sen. Paul Bailey of Sparta said he hasn’t heard of any school districts, including those in his district, supporting private-school vouchers.

Bailey said he supports “parental choice” on schools (code for I support the governor as long as it doesn’t hurt me), but in representing two of the state’s smallest counties, Van Buren and Jackson, he’s concerned any loss of funds through just a handful of students could be “detrimental.”

“That could mean the local county commission could have to raise property taxes to offset that revenue, and I’ve expressed that to the governor,” Bailey said this week.

State Rep. Scott Cepicky, who inadvertently undermined the bill this year after secretly-recorded audio caught him saying he wanted to “trash” the public school system and start fresh, said it’s too early to tell whether bills will return in the same form. 

Cepicky, a Culleoka Republican, carried legislation that added long-sought benefits for public school teachers. “I think they were good things for public schools,” he said recently.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, chair of the House Education Administration Committee, confers with Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, sponsor of a bill to offer private school vouchers across the state. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, chair of the House Education Administration Committee, confers with Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, sponsor of a bill to offer private school vouchers across the state. (Photo: John Partipilo)

But even those couldn’t sway enough Republican lawmakers to back Lee’s plan, especially with school system folks at home ready to hammer them. And House and Senate leaders couldn’t reach a deal on widely different plans. Word was they were pissed at each other.

So far, Lee has backed Senate Education Chairman Jon Lundberg over Republican opponent Bobby Harshbarger in District 4, and Sen. Ferrell Haile over challenger Chris Spencer in District 18.

In addition, he endorsed Cepicky, House Majority Leader William Lamberth of Portland and Republican Jason Emert in House District 20, which is being vacated by Rep. Bryan Richey as he (weakly) runs for the Senate seat Art Swann is leaving, according to the Tennessee Journal.

The governor is also backing Republican Lee Reeves over Brian Beathard and Michelle Foreman in Williamson County’s House District 65, Republican Aron Maberry over three other Republicans in Montgomery County’s District 68, Rep. John Ragan over Rick Scarbrough in the District 33 Republican primary, and there could be more.

Someone asked recently why the state doesn’t experiment with vouchers before adopting a statewide program. The answer is: They are with a constitutionally suspect law passed for Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts, then Hamilton County. But they have little information to use, other than a comment from Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds, who said voucher students’ test scores are “nothing to write home about.”

The governor’s entitled to spend his summer as he likes, but that voucher vacation isn’t gonna be good for Tennessee.

– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville

On the heels of that 2019 vote, which led to an FBI investigation, lawmakers grappled this year with the concept of providing funds for all students to transfer to private schools, a move that would undercut public schools in spite of Lee’s insistence that the state is trying to build up traditional school districts.

One legislator, though, privately said the governor was making people “walk the plank,” pitting them against either local school boards or pro-voucher lobbyists.

Even with the governor’s endorsement, new lawmakers who win seats this year will find themselves running headlong into their school district officials. In short, they might pass a private-school voucher bill in 2025, but they’ll have to fall on a sword to do it.

It’s only money

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Review Committee approved a nice contract extension Wednesday for Centurion of Tennessee to continue providing inmate health services to state prisons. The one-year addition bumps up the cost $138 million to a total of $824 million.

Turns out the department had to cancel bids because the apparent winner for a new contract, Corizon Health subsidiary YesCare, appeared to have submitted “potentially misleading, inaccurate and incorrect answers” with its bid, all in the last month, according to a department spokesperson. Without a contract extension, the department could have lost health-care services for prison inmates in 19 days.

Centurion brought the matter to the attention of Correction Department officials and the state’s contract procurement office. Turnabout appears to be fair play since Corizon claimed Centurion rigged bids in a lawsuit three years ago.

The state took new bids on a $123 million contract for inmate mental health services because of the lawsuit, which was settled but dismissed with prejudice in early January 2022. 

Meanwhile, the Legislature withstood efforts to give Centene, the now-former parent company of Centurion, a TennCare contract after it failed to win a bid. The Fiscal Review Committee extended managed care contracts for four other TennCare providers this week.

On Sexton's hot seat: House Speaker Cameron Sexton wants to impeach Shelby County District Attorney Steven J. Mulroy, who was elected in Oct. 2023. (Photo: Karen Pulfer-Focht)
On Sexton’s hot seat: House Speaker Cameron Sexton wants to impeach Shelby County District Attorney Steven J. Mulroy, who was elected in Oct. 2023. (Photo: Karen Pulfer-Focht)

A Memphis tempest

The war of words continues against Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy as Republican state officials accuse him of coddling criminals.

Mulroy recently announced a new diversion program for felons caught with weapons, eliciting harsh responses from constant critics such as Sen. Brent Taylor and House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Sexton said, “He’s soft on criminals – he makes Memphis unsafe! He pushes a dangerous ideology & agenda. He wants gun control on law abiding citizens – but is good with felons possessing firearms. DA Mulroy kowtowing to criminals once again.”

Taylor, a Memphis Republican, told the Lookout this week he’s tired of Shelby County people asking him to push for stronger gun control and then refusing to enforce the laws already in effect for weapons.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Taylor said.

Mulroy, a Democrat serving his first term, responded with a statement saying the DA’s Office is still prosecuting illegal gun possession cases, including possession of a gun connected to a drug crime and possession of a Glock switch in which it’s lobbying lawmakers for tougher penalties. The DA also continues to prosecute felons “of all kinds” for gun possession, he said.

“But we’ll be open to offering a diversion track, on a case by case basis for those defendants who have no history of violence or significant criminal history and seem reformable,” Mulroy said.

Those offenders would continue to be prosecuted, in fact, but they could avoid conviction by meeting “stringent requirements” for rehabilitation. The office’s goal is to improve safety by keeping felons from offending again and “freeing” prosecutors to concentrate on those who do “use a weapon,” Mulroy said.

Complicating the situation, Democratic Sen. London Lamar joined the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission in announcing legislation for 2025 to renew a permit process for carrying handguns, in addition to safety training and background checks. Gun carry permits are said to be “a key priority” for the commission.

Lamar has sponsored similar bills since the Legislature passed the permit-less carry law in 2019 at Gov. Lee’s request. Statistics compiled by the Lookout show gun thefts have gone up substantially since the measure took effect.

Yet Republican lawmakers have blocked efforts to reinstate mandates for permitting and handgun training.

Maybe we can be treated to a debate on this situation in 2025.

But don’t look for much change on Capitol Hill or in Memphis, which is ripe for political wrangling.

Show me the mosh pit

Fiscal Review delayed action until July on a contract with Recidiviz, which was hired in 2021 to create “dashboards” for the Department of Correction’s internal use and lawmaker access, as well as another for public use.

Only the internal dashboard for the department came to fruition, leaving lawmakers and the public out of the equation, yet it asked for a one-year contract extension that would increase the Recidiviz contract by $1.1 million to $1.6 million.

A Correction Department representative told lawmakers this week that Commissioner Frank Strada “supports transparency” but that the “dashboard” was put on “the backburner.” (The state’s backburner is full of rusty pots.) The representative also said Strada’s administration didn’t know predecessors had promised a “dashboard.”

Fiscal Review Chairman Todd Gardenhire queried, “So we were put on the backburner?”

The excuse boiled down to “turnover,” which led Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, to ask when the committee could be placed on the “front burner.”

“We’re not Bob Uecker here. Put us on the front row,” he said. Gardenhire later updated his statement with an apology to those under 40 who might not understand the analogy to an old Miller Lite commercial in which baseball play-by-play man Uecker is escorted out of the wrong seat and says, “I must be in the front row.”

Apparently, Gardenhire bounced back from a bout with illness that put him in a bad place last year and in early 2024. Then again, it is election time.

“I’m back in the saddle again / I’m back.” *

* “Back in the Saddle” Aerosmith