Lee chooses vouchers over teacher raises, student mental health

Frank CagleFrank Talk

Hunkered down, sheltering in place. Cough, cough. Don’t panic. Write a coronavirus-free column. Too late.

Last week we saw the triumph of ideology over good governance. In the midst of slashing the proposed state budget by $900 million, finding money to combat the effects of a pandemic, cutting a mental-health program for schoolchildren and cutting teacher pay raises in half, Gov. Bill Lee insisted on spending $40 million to implement his voucher program in Nashville and Memphis.

Frank Cagle

The money isn’t even to save the program, which was planned to roll out next year, but to move it to this fall. Lee is panicked that if he waits until next year the legislature or a judge will kill it. House members may draw an opponent for the August primary because they voted to take money from public schools and give it to private schools. The voucher bill passed by one vote in the House. What happens next session if a dozen of those “yes” votes are replaced by “no” votes after close calls or even defeats? A lot of senators voted for the bill after all the House trauma so as not to embarrass the governor. If the House votes to repeal don’t be surprised if the Senate goes along.

But it will be harder to close down a program after it has been up and running for a year than smothering it at birth.

The legislature is in recess until June 1. It is hoped that the state will have a better grip on what is going to happen to the state economy and the state budget by that time. A host of bills were left hanging by the decision to adjourn for a while. But will the legislature spend most of June wrangling over a gun bill, an abortion bill and whether state employees will get a 12-week parental-leave benefit? Early voting for legislator primaries begins July 17. After April 2, members will know if they have an opponent or not.

So why did the legislature decide to even come back June 1? Two reasons. Some members were encouraged to vote to go home by the promise that their bills may be considered when they come back. And second, it is standard practice for the legislature to have a chance to overturn a governor’s vetoes should the governor go rogue after the legislators go home. Given the crisis, Lee has a $150 million fund to spend as he pleases on fighting the virus. And there is $1.45 billion in the rainy-day fund. Legislators may want a say in some of the decisions made.

Makes me cringe: With the upcoming campaign season I’m sure I will see one of my pet peeves in frequent use. We used to have a term in politics called “free media.” When you had a candidate or officeholder who did something worthy of news coverage it was over and above what had to be spent on advertising, and thus it was free.

But how can political consultants or public relations firms charge money for “free media”? So, they invented the term “earned media.” The implication then is that media coverage not paid for can only be achieved by consultants manipulating the press and thus by clever strategy they “earn” media coverage. Somehow political consultants have convinced reporters and editors to go along with this new nomenclature.

What happened to the press making its own decisions about what constitutes news? If it is a phony manipulated event staged by a consultant in order to elicit coverage then why is it “news” and why do we cover it? If it is genuine news, worthy of coverage, it isn’t “earned.” It’s just news.

Profile in Courage? I watched “All the President’s Men,” the film about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s tremendous coverage of the Watergate scandal, recently on Turner Classic Movies. It’s a story that inspired a whole generation of young reporters and swelled journalism departments nationwide. It came during the Golden Age of newspaper journalism with flush ad revenue and profits and technology that reduced production costs. We are not likely to see its like again. Newsrooms got staff, shareholders got terrific returns and everybody was fat and happy.

For decades after Watergate the Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was revered for having the courage to “trust the boys” and run explosive stories about the developing cover-up. I think his risky gamble turned out not to be so risky after all when decades later we discovered that “Deep Throat,” the principal source, was Mark Felts, the assistant director of the FBI.

What editor wouldn’t “trust the boys” when he knows they are getting their information from the No. 2 guy at the FBI?

Frank Cagle is a veteran newspaper editor and columnist.


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