vouchers

Report: Feds and TBI involved in probe of voucher vote

Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) speaks with House Finance Chair Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) in the House chamber on April 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Despite the housecleaning that has taken place in the lower chamber of the General Assembly, state and federal officials are still looking into allegations that former Speaker Glen Casada offered inducements to lawmakers in exchange for supporting controversial voucher legislation, The Daily Memphian’s Sam Stockard reports.

The publication confirmed that agents with the FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation have spoken to lawmakers about allegations that Casada and his staff about made promises as part of an effort to break a 49-49 vote on the bill in May. Casada kept the board open for more than 40 minutes to try to make the case to various lawmakers, including on the balcony outside the House chamber.

Casada has denied any wrongdoing, calling allegations of inducements “unequivocally false.”

State Rep. Jim Coley (R-Bartlett) said the move to keep the board open  set a bad precedent for close votes.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens because it was certainly improper and one of the things Glen did that unraveled his speakership,” Coley said.

Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis, the chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, is preparing a letter to TBI Director David Rausch requesting an investigation into potential “public corruption,” in connection with the voucher vote.

One area of widespread speculation is whether Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston), who recently became a full colonel in the Tennessee National Guard, was offered a promotion to general if he switched his vote to favor the voucher bill.

Windle has confirmed a conversation took place in which Casada suggested he could be made a general if he supported the bill. But he remained in the ‘no’ column.

“I voted no on the bill as a matter of principle, and that vote decision did not change. The people of Fentress, Jackson, Morgan and Overton counties are fiercely independent, and their vote is not for sale,” Windle said in a statement after the allegations were first made public. “After the vote, as a former prosecutor, I sought the guidance of Tennessee ethics authorities and followed their recommendations.”

Cagle: Casada downfall a reminder that lawmakers don’t work for governor

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), right, meets with colleagues on the Senate floor on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Frank Cagle, the former Knoxville News Sentinel managing editor and spokesman for Republican Van Hilleary’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign, says there’s a clear lesson for lawmakers in the implosion of Rep. Glen Casada’s speakership:

Anybody who thinks about going all-in for the governor instead of listening to the folks back home needs to remember Casada. Perhaps it’s good for Casada to hang around in the House as a walking object lesson. If you sold your soul on the voucher vote because Casada offered you incentives, where are your incentives now?

Cagle had his own run-in with the forces of Casada this year. A day after he wrote a Knox TN Today column blasting the voucher bill, his nomination to the state Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission was killed in the House. Eight weeks later, the voucher bill had been signed into law, Casada was on his way out, and Cagle was back on the textbook panel as a recess appointment by Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-
Oak Ridge).

Read Cagle’s full column here:

The Casada Lesson: You don’t work for the governor

Will Sexton tap the brakes on early roll-out of voucher program?

Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) speaks to colleagues before a House Republican Caucus meeting to nominate a new speaker on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Count Rep. Cameron Sexton, the Republican nominee for House speaker, among the skeptics of Gov. Bill Lee’s push to roll out the school voucher program a year early.

“I do not think it needs to be accelerated at this point,” Sexton told The Tennessean, adding that his colleagues feel the same way.

Read the full story here.

Casada denies he offered inducements for voucher votes

Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) speaks with House Finance Chair Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) in the House chamber on April 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Speaker Glen Casada, who is resigning next week following the loss of a no-confidence vote, has put out an unusual statement to deny that he offered infrastructure funding or a National Guard promotion in exchange for a positive vote on the controversial school voucher bill.

Democratic state Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston, who voted against the voucher legislation, confirmed to WTVF-TV that Casada had suggested he might be promoted from a colonel in the Guard if he changed his vote.

“In response to your question, your characterization of the conversation is correct,” Windle said in a statement to WTVF.

“I voted against the bill as a matter of principle, and that vote decision did not change. The people of Fentress, Jackson, Morgan, and Overton counties are fiercely independent, and their vote is not for sale.”

Republican Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver of Lancaster, who also opposed the bill, said Casada suggested a new Interstate interchange at the Carthage-Gordonsville exit might be on the table.

“My reply was, ‘You know that’s bogus. You know you can’t do that,” Weaver told the station.

And Rep. Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville) said Casada’s team hinted there might be funding for a jail expansion in his district if he voted for the bill. He refused.

 

UPDATE: Voucher compromise approved by both chambers

The House voted 51-46 to approve the compromise on Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher bill. The Senate followed suit 19-14 later in the day. The freshman governor says he “looks forward to signing this bill into law.”

Here’s the House vote:

The vote was 50-48 when it cleared the chamber the first time. There were several changes between the two votes, though. they include:

From no to yes: Reps. Patsy Hazlewood (R-Chattanooga), David Wright (R-Corryton).

From absent to yes: Rep. Debra Moody (R-Covington).

From yes to abstain: Reps. Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville), Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin).

(After the vote was all over, Daniel and Ogles filed paperwork to change their votes to be in favor of the measure. That change of heart will be reflected in the House Journal, but doesn’t affect the official tally taken through the voting machine).

The Senate lost one vote from its previous version when Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) switched from yes to no.

 

 

Nashville, Memphis school districts threaten to sue over vouchers

The school districts covering Nashville and Memphis are threatening to sue the state if the General Assembly passes legislation to enact an expanded school voucher program affecting only their students. The so-called Education Savings Account bill passed both the House and Senate last week, but in competing forms.

Here’s the full release from Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools:

State’s 2 Largest School Districts Oppose Education Savings Account Legislation as Unconstitutional

The Education Savings Account (ESA) legislation violates Article XI, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution because it is arbitrarily limited to only a portion of the state when the Constitution requires any Act of the General Assembly to apply statewide unless approved by a local legislative body or through a local referendum.

The language, in both the House and Senate versions of the bill, reflects an arbitrary application to Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Metro Nashville Public Schools (MPNS), as there are school districts such as Madison and Fayette county with larger or nearly the same percentages of schools performing in the bottom 10 percent. The legislation also applies to only certain districts with priority schools from the state’s 2015 priority school list even though there is a more current list from 2018 that includes schools in Campbell, Fayette, Madison and Maury counties. These districts are arbitrarily left out of the legislation.

Should this legislation be signed into law, an immediate constitutional challenge is likely to ensure equal protection under the law. Shelby County is no stranger to asserting and prevailing on such constitutional challenges as reflected in the November 27, 2012 decision in the case of Board of Education of Shelby County Tennessee et al v. Memphis City Board of Education by federal Judge Hardy Mays which rendered a similar bill void that was local in effect.

“If the Governor and Legislature are determined to pass a general law that would apply arbitrarily only to us or a limited number of school systems, we will be sure to exhaust all of our legal options,” said SCS Superintendent, Dr. Joris M. Ray.

“No matter what you call them, vouchers are a bad idea. They are not what we need for public schools. We owe it to this generation of students — and to all of those who follow them – to fight for a system that is fairly funded,” said Dr. Adrienne Battle, the MNPS Interim Director.

If the ESA bill becomes law, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools stand prepared to evaluate and pursue all legal remedies that ensure that the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law remain intact for the children and families of our districts and state.

 

Voucher bill passes Senate on 20-13 vote

The Senate has voted 20-13 to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher bill.

There are still major differences with the House, which passed its version by a bare minimum 50 votes earlier this week.

The Senate vote came after the chamber rushed to swear in new Republican member Bill Powers (R-Clarksville). Powers voted for the bill despite declaring during the campaign that he opposed vouchers.

It takes 17 votes for bills to pass the chamber.

Trump tweets about Tennessee voucher bill

A tweet from President Donald Trump is something voucher supporters were desperate for in the run-up to yesterday’s House floor vote. As it turned out, the tweet came after the chamber voted 50-48 to pass the contentious measure (but not until after 40 minutes of arm-twisting and cajoling holdouts while the voting board was kept open).

But Trump finally did take to Twitter on the eve of a vote on the Senate version.

Given that the bill is believed to have cleared it’s toughest hurdle in the House, it’s unclear what — if any — effect the presidential tweet will have. But it certainly gives some backing to lawmakers who went out on a limb to vote for a bill opposed by their home school districts.

Voucher bill clears House floor, Senate committee by single vote each

It was a day for close votes for Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal. First, the measure received the bare minimum number of votes in a 6-5 decision by the Senate Finance Committee to send the bill to a full floor vote. Then, House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) had to keep the voting board open for 40 minutes in order to persuade a lone holdout — Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) — to change his vote from no to yes and get the bill the 50 votes it needed to pass.

Here’s your Senate Finance Committee vote in graphical form.

Senators voting yes were, from left, Brian Kelsey, John Stevens, Ferrell Haile, Todd Gardenhire, and Bo Watson. Voting no were Joey Hensley, Ken Yager, Brenda Gilmore, Jeff Yarbro, and Richard Briggs.

Here’s the House vote:

Representatives voting aye were: Baum, Boyd, Carter, Cepicky, Crawford, Curcio, Daniel, DeBerry, Doggett, Dunn, Eldridge, Faison, Farmer, Garrett, Hall, Helton, Hill M, Hill T, Holt, Howell, Hulsey, Hurt, Johnson C, Kumar, Lafferty, Lamberth, Leatherwood, Littleton, Lynn, Marsh, Moon, Ogles, Powers, Ragan, Reedy, Rudd, Rudder, Sanderson, Sexton J, Sherrell, Smith, Sparks, Terry, Tillis, Todd, Van Huss, White, Williams, Zachary, Mr. Speaker Casada — 50.

Representatives voting no were: Beck, Bricken, Byrd, Calfee, Camper, Carr, Chism, Clemmons, Cochran, Coley, Cooper, Dixie, Freeman, Gant, Griffey, Hakeem, Halford, Hardaway, Haston, Hawk, Hazlewood, Hicks, Hodges, Holsclaw, Jernigan, Johnson G, Keisling, Lamar, Love, Miller, Mitchell, Parkinson, Potts, Powell, Ramsey, Russell, Sexton C, Shaw, Staples, Stewart, Thompson, Towns, Travis, Vaughan, Weaver, Whitson, Windle, Wright — 48.

Voucher bill to be dialed back to apply to just Shelby and Davidson

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a Philips event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

After many twists and turns, Gov. Bill Lee’s expanded school voucher bill is headed for a floor vote in the House this week. And in the Senate, the bill is being dialed back to apply only to the counties encompassing Nashville and Memphis.

The Education Saving Account proposal started out as applying to any district in which three or more schools fell in the bottom 10%. That would have meant Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, and Madison Counties. Several rural lawmakers were worried that the next listing of priority schools could plunge their home districts into the bottom 10% and thus open the floodgates of unwanted vouchers in their home areas, too.

Lee promised a “hold harmless” provision for districts where the ESA program would be made available by creating a fund outside the Basic Education Program formula to reimburse them for the state money that goes away when students leave to take ESAs. That provision was largely abandoned in the House to instead have much of that money flow toward rural districts with priority schools. The Senate appears less enamored by that approach.

The ESA’s themselves have created controversy by allowing parents to spend the $7,300 per year on educational items beyond tuition, including electronic equipment, uniforms, and college savings. Critics worry that that will open the program up to abuse.

Homeschooling was stripped out of the House bill, but remains in the Senate version. Both chambers’ bills would create call for a citizenship test despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring states to provide K-12 education to all students regardless of their immigration status.

The bill is scheduled for a House floor vote on Tuesday and for the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.