Barrier to vouchers may crumble in new House

Frank CagleFeature, Frank Talk

Expect a major battle in the state legislature this session to approve some sort of voucher plan that will take money from public schools and pay tuition to private schools. Yearly efforts to implement such a plan have thus far been stymied. But the situation has changed with a new administration and new legislative leadership.

Though voucher bills have passed in the Senate in previous years, the House has been able to stop them. We won’t get a clear picture of the prospects for passage until committee assignments and committee chairs are announced. But we do know that House Education Chair Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, retired. It will be up to new Speaker Glen Casada to name a new chair. Will it be a pro-voucher legislator or someone opposed?

We also know that Gov.-elect Bill Lee has named Tony Niknejad as his policy adviser. Niknejad has been the lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, its primary mission being vouchers for private schools. The prospect of keeping a voucher bill bottled up will be harder if the new governor makes it one of his priorities.

On the other hand the rural counties that gave Lee enough votes to win are adamantly against vouchers. And Lee’s home county of Williamson has a school system that has attracted a large number of Nashville residents to relocate there. Will they be for taking money from the Williamson County school system to provide vouchers to private schools?

But the impetus for vouchers usually comes from Memphis, where statistics show the worst public schools in Tennessee are located. What may happen is that a bill will pass for a pilot program in Memphis. But once this program is set up for one school system, we are headed down a slippery slope toward a bill expanding the program statewide.

One reason a voucher bill has not passed before now is a split between those who propose a pilot program to see how it works in Memphis and a group that argues the program ought to be available statewide. That prevents out-voting members who are opposed to vouchers period.

Man With a Plan: Spent some time talking with Congressman-elect Tim Burchett. It appears that the Carhartt-clad newbie has been making the rounds and is one of the better known freshman representatives. Burchett says constituent service will be his priority. Given that he is a freshman in the minority party, passing major legislation in the short term is not likely. My prediction is that over the next two years Burchett will have made friends all over the House, and if the Republicans regain control in 2020 or 2022 he will be positioned to be very effective.

More Homeys: Last week I pointed out that Gov.-elect Lee, soon-to-be House Speaker Casada, new Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson and newly elected U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn were all from the Nashville suburb of Williamson County. Some adds to the list: Lee’s Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter is a Williamson County businessman, Lee has named Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long to head the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, and the pick for Agriculture Commissioner is Charlie Hatcher, also from Williamson County. Williamson County’s agricultural tracts of late have been sprouting subdivisions and shopping malls.

News You Can Use: Congressman Jimmy Duncan sent out his last newsletter last week as he retires from office. Duncan has produced the newsletter for a lot of years, and Duncan took pride in the fact that he wrote it himself and it was his views on real issues – not promotional fluff. He also has six constituent days scheduled Saturday and Monday from Claiborne to Knox to Loudon counties.

But It’s Football: Liberty University was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority and a major figure in the evangelical Christian movement. Liberty was founded as a Christian school to instill moral values in young people. Last week Liberty University hired Hugh Freeze to be the football coach. Freeze has had a lot of success at places like Ole Miss and was considered by some to be a candidate for offensive coordinator for the University of Tennessee. Freeze resigned from Ole Miss in the midst of an NCAA recruitment-violations investigation, but the final straw was the 12 calls to an escort service on his university phone. Given that he held himself out to be a Super Christian, it was especially ironic. Liberty University hiring him doubles it. You can’t make this stuff up.

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