Collierville lawmakers soft on school vouchers despite local opposition – Tennessee Lookout

Sen. Brent Taylor, R-Collierville. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)

Collierville elected officials are slamming Gov. Bill Lee’s private school voucher plan, saying it will take vital money away from public schools. But the city’s two lawmakers are playing it safe, saying they need to see the legislation’s details before deciding how they’ll vote. 

Even so, they believe it needs to be tempered.

State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Collierville Republican who served on the city’s school board, admits his stance toward public dollars for students to enroll in private schools has “softened to some degree.” He made no secret of opposition to the governor’s Education Savings Account program when it came to the House floor in 2019, then narrowly passed after then-Speaker Glen Casada held the board open for nearly 45 minutes to work the chamber and break a tie.

Despite that philosophical shift, Vaughan says, “If there’s gonna be competition between public and private schools for students, it would be nice if the same rules applied to each school.”

That likely means private schools would have to give tests and possibly offer the same types of programs for disabled students as public schools do now.

Collierville’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the Collierville Board of Education recently passed a joint measure opposing the voucher plan, saying it will take money away from their school district, which is considered one of the highest-performing in the state.

Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, made no secret about his opposition to private school vouchers when they first came up for a vote in 2019. Now, even though Collierville schools officials are vocally opposed, Vaughan says his “universe of ideas has has expanded.”

They are adamant, while their reps seem malleable.

Vaughan, a Collierville developer, notes his view of the governor’s voucher program changed after he saw the results while “trying to figure out the best way to deal with the children that are trapped in terribly performing schools.” 

Previously, Vaughan wanted to focus on improving weak schools but says there have been enough failed attempts to reform them “that my universe of ideas has expanded.”

The results from voucher students, though, are doubtable, at best.

Similarly, Sen. Brent Taylor, a Memphis Republican who represents Collierville, Germantown, Arlington and the rest of eastern Shelby, says he hasn’t seen language for the Collierville resolution or the governor’s bill and contends “there’s a lot of fleshing out that has to be done before anybody knows what they’re really opposing.” Thus, he’s keeping an “open mind.” 

Taylor doesn’t serve on the Senate Education Committee and won’t have a hand in shaping the bill before it makes the Senate floor, but he acknowledges he supports helping impoverished children get out of “failing” schools into a better education atmosphere where they can flourish.

The governor’s proposal calls for 20,000 “scholarships” in the first year, 10,000 for students at 300% of the poverty level, about $90,000 for a family of four, and another 10,000 for students eligible to attend a public school. In the second year, the program would become “universal,” available for any student eligible to attend a public school. 

Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

That’s pretty wide open, though quite a stretch and puts the state in the position of funding private school tuition for 1 million students, including those who’ve been attending private schools for years. The governor’s first private school voucher program has enrolled only 1,972 students in its second year, far from the 5,000 approved, raising questions about whether people love this deal.

It’s one thing, however, to buy into Taylor’s argument about helping a single, working mother who wants her two children to find a better life. But it’s a pretty big leap to justify giving away millions of dollars to create a dual-education program for rich people.

“I would be surprised if what makes the Senate floor is ‘universal,’” says Taylor, who sent his children to private schools rather than Memphis city schools. “I just think there will probably be some type of means testing. … I just don’t see that that piece survives.” That includes an income threshold to determine eligibility.

So let the debate begin.

Setting up a culture war?

One of the overriding questions about this whole deal is whether it has any basis in reality or whether it’s just a plan someone dreamed up to keep a “culture war” going. You might recall Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who attended the governor’s dog and pony show last week, (oops, I meant press conference), called it a “conservative education revolution.”

Is this meant to make kids smarter or create a smoke screen to fire up people on both sides and give pro-voucher people a chance to hammer people who think public education is a great equalizer. Don’t look for lawmakers to vote exactly how their constituents want, even if large numbers of Republican voters oppose it.

They’ll be outspent by dark money groups and those who want to piss off liberal groups and hammer them in a state with a 60-to-40 Republican advantage.

With an eye toward that outrage, House Democrats reacted this week by asking U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice to investigate the shady 2019 voucher vote to see whether Casada and his cronies tried to bribe people to back Lee’s plan.

Lee lobbied lawmakers heavily, and the former speaker took several legislators onto the House balcony to ply them for a vote, reportedly offering former Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, the rank of general in the National Guard.

Former Rep. Kent Calfee says he heard Casada talk about trying to get the governor to promote Windle from the rank of colonel, which he refused.

It’s unclear whether more investigation is warranted because FBI agents interviewed Windle and Calfee, who also told the Lookout the governor invited him to his office to talk about the matter. Apparently, Lee felt Calfee was making him look bad. 

They also discussed a slush fund Casada pushed through the Legislature to reward his backers. Yet Lee has denied any knowledge of the Calfee meeting, even though the Kingston Republican was very specific, saying the governor gave him a hug before he left his office. Some folks wonder whether the governor was checking him for a wire.

House Democratic Caucus Letter to AG Merrick Garland

And so the request goes, “Given the close connections between former Rep. Glen Casada, Bill Lee and voucher supporters who are currently on the state’s payroll or being paid by private entities to promote Lee’s latest voucher scam, our duty to Tennesseans mandates that any lingering questions about alleged illegal conduct during the 2019 voucher vote in the House be resolved once and for all,” Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons says.

Former Reps. John Deberry, D-Memphis, Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, and Andy Holt, R-Dresden, received sweet jobs with the state after backing the bill. Lee’s inner circle, including Blake Harris and Brent Easley, also was full of voucher and charter school supporters, and there are more connections.

When Germantown Municipal Schools Director Jason Manuel raised questions this week about the governor’s voucher plan and urged the Legislature to lift the “crushing” requirements on public schools, he was attacked on X by the likes of Americans for Prosperity – Tennessee Deputy Director Michael Lotfi, who questioned how Manuel could defend the district’s poor record for meeting “simple, basic requirements for ELA & Mathematics in Germantown schools. Like, ya got me! I guess?” he X’d.

This lesson in grammatical intricacies comes from the same person hired by Casada in 2019 to perform a high-paying, no-show government job set up to perform the speaker’s dirty work. It included attacking people who had the temerity to question the appointment of then-Rep. David Byrd to an education chairmanship at a time Byrd was facing criticism for allegedly (he never denied it) trying to have sexual relations with girls he coached on the 1980s Wayne County basketball team. 

Of course, that’s just one more reason to undermine public schools because everyone knows private schools have no perverts.

What we do have, though, is a lot of people enriching themselves with shell games to defeat lawmakers who oppose their policies. These legislators are scared to death of losing in the next election, and they’ll say and do anything to hold their seats, including voting to pass the governor’s voucher plan in 2024. If not, they’ll never see Nashville again, unless they’re going to the Grand Ole Opry.

This deserves applause

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem was honored this week by the Blood Assurance of Chattanooga for donating 10 gallons of blood in recent years. The Chattanooga Democrat says he wants to inspire others to give blood, especially considering the frequency of sickle cell anemia among Black Americans.

Considering the frequent blood-lettings in the House chamber, all members should follow his example. That’s a joke, but this is serious.

Freeman on the rebound?

Mayor Freddie O’Connell’s office confirmed Thursday the new mayor is recommending property management magnate Bill Freeman be reappointed to the Metro Nashville Airport Authority. He sent the reappointment to the Metro Council for approval.

The elder Freeman suffered two strokes in the past year or so and recently turned over his business to his son, Bob Freeman, who serves in the state House of Representatives. The mayor’s spokesman, nevertheless, says O’Connell believes Freeman is in good enough shape to continue serving on the authority, which is at the center of a skirmish between Metro Nashville and the state.

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said recently the state will challenge Metro Nashville’s legal victory in a lawsuit over airport authority control.

Tennessee AG appeals Nashville airport authority decision

A three-judge panel returned control over appointments to the Metro Nashville mayor’s office after the Legislature gave the governor and speakers of the House and Senate a majority of appointments on the authority and shifted control to the state. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, argued during debate this year that the state should take control of the airport, in part, because it provides funds for the facility. Metro pointed out the state provides only grants for the airport, about 5% of its revenue. 

The judicial panel allowed the state-appointed board to take effect over the summer, and it made the most of the opportunity by approving nearly $100 million in contracts and raising CEO Doug Kreulen’s salary to $600,000 from $390,000. (Where do I sign up and would Freeman approve a 50% raise for me? If so, I’d quit jacking around with the cell phone lots and make them numero uno on the job list.)

All this and more because the Metro Council refused to bring the Republican National Convention to town next year.

“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings. Coming down is the hardest thing.”*

(* “Learning to fly,” Tom Petty.)

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