Voucher Vultures Swoop Down on Nashville

Roughly one month after Governor Bill Lee signed his Education Savings Account voucher scheme into law, a North Carolina-based private school announced it is expanding operations to Nashville. Perhaps not surprisingly, tuition at the school is similar to the amount available to families in Nashville and Memphis under the ESA program.

The school, Thales Academy, is operated by the CEO of a commercial kitchen ventilation company. Bob Luddy is also a top GOP donor in North Carolina.

Here’s Luddy on how great his schools are:

“We get results. If you look consistently over a period of time, kindergarten students come in, they can barely walk in the door, they can barely sit down, and then you see them progress as they learn sounds, and they learn to decode. By the time they progress into the 3rd or 4th grade they’re doing very sophisticated work, which is going to prepare them to be excellent students in the long term,” Luddy says in a video on the Thales Academy website.

And here’s more on accreditation straight from the school’s website:

The accreditation process does not align with Thales Academy’s mission and would prevent Thales from maintaining our standard of the highest quality education.

Thales and Luddy are not new to Tennessee. In fact, in 2015, voucher advocate Lee Barfield paid for a private plane to take former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell to North Carolina to visit the Thales schools. Like Bill Lee, Barfield is a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and even served on the group’s Board of Directors.

Those in the GOP cozying up to Luddy should beware, though, he’s known for expressing his disappointment where it hurts politicians the most: campaign contributions.

Here’s how he treated the House GOP in North Carolina:

A major conservative donor’s decision this week to divert a planned $25,000 contribution away from state House Republicans highlights an increasingly bitter divide within the party over tax policy and government spending.

Raleigh businessman Bob Luddy, who chairs the board of the conservative Civitas Institute think tank and is an influential financial supporter of conservative candidates, emailed a sharp critique of the House budget to House Republicans, who are in the majority.

Luddy complained that the budget advancing to a major vote on Thursday does not include new tax cuts and extends tax breaks for specific industries. He called the spending plan too “liberal” and said he’s decided to withold his planned, annual donation to the House Republicans’ campaign committee.

Luddy instead directed his money to Americans for Prosperity and then issued this sharp rebuke to those who had taken his money in the past but were not doing his bidding:

But Luddy says the state shouldn’t prop up the solar industry. “These guys couldn’t exist without government subsidies, and those subsidies have to come from every working taxpayer who are capable of creating way more jobs than the solar industry could ever create,” he said.

Here’s a guy who plans on using public money to fund his private school scheme and he’s decrying the use of public funds to support an industry he simply doesn’t like. Perhaps if public money shouldn’t be used to “prop up the solar industry” it also shouldn’t be used to prop up Luddy’s Thales Academy.

Those who warned that passage of vouchers would lead to “pop-up” private schools have already been proven right. Thales Academy and Bob Luddy were invited into Tennessee by Bill Lee and friends and are now perched like hungry vultures ready to suck funds from Nashville’s public schools.

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Bill Lee’s Beach Buddy

Governor Bill Lee has appointed unregistered voucher lobbyist Mark Gill to the Tennessee Board of Regents, according to a report in the Tennessean.

Lee appointed Mark Gill, a longtime advocate for school vouchers who made headlines after treating five lawmakers to a stay at his Alabama seaside condo and a deep-sea fishing trip, to the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Gill has served on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Federation for Children, the Tennessee arm of Betsy DeVos‘s American Federation for Children. Lee is both a long-time voucher advocate and a financial backer of DeVos’s school privatization efforts.

Readers may recall Gill’s pro-voucher antics, including hosting lawmakers at his beachfront condo:

So, Mark Gill serves on the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Federation for Children, is a large donor to the group, and hosts five Tennessee lawmakers at his beachside condo and then those same lawmakers just happen to co-sponsor pro-voucher legislation at the General Assembly?

No, this isn’t illegal. Yes, it actually happened. This is the type of behavior these same lawmakers decry about DC politicians.

Make no mistake, Bill Lee depends on shady characters like Lee Beaman, Shaka Mitchell, and Mark Gill in order to claim victory in his quest to take public money and shift it to private schools.

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Failed Charter Leader Pushes Private School Welfare Scheme

Shaka Mitchell, the head of the Tennessee branch of Betsy DeVos‘s school privatization group American Federation for Children, joined two other school privatization advocates in penning an OpEd calling on legislators to ignore legitimate concerns about the way in which the plan passed in the House.

Mitchell’s piece suggests an urgency to moving forward with the incredibly expensive Education Savings Account (ESA) scheme. He glosses over the fierce resistance to vouchers from across the state and fails to mention the win-at-all-costs tactics of voucher advocates that ultimately led to the plan’s passage this year.

Readers may remember Mitchell as the charter school leader who ran Nashville’s Rocketship schools into the ground.

In fact, while Mitchell was failing in his attempts to expand Rocketship, the State Board of Education noted:

In fact, Rocketship’s appeal to the State Board was rejected last year in part because of low performance:

“They did have a level 5 TVAAS composite, which is the highest score overall you can get in growth,” Heyburn said. “But their achievement scores are really low, some of the lowest in their cluster and in the district.”

The MNPS review team addressed this as well:

In summary, with no additional state accountability data to consider, and no compelling evidence presented that provides confidence in the review team, converting an existing low-performing school before Rocketship has demonstrated academic success on state accountability measures would not be in the best interests of the students, the district, or the community.

And then there’s this:

According to the Metro Schools letter, Rocketship is not providing services to children with special learning needs, like English language learners and students with disabilities.

The notice was sent from Metro Nashville Public School’s top administrators after a monitoring team with the Tennessee Department of Education came in to conduct a routine audit of special services, primarily programs adhering to The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

It’s pretty amazing that the guy who literally failed in helping kids when he was in charge of a school is now telling the Tennessee legislature they should heed his advice about education policy. Of course, it’s not at all surprising that Mitchell ignores the evidence that vouchers have simply failed to improve student achievement in state after state. After all, in spite of his troubled past at Rocketship, Team DeVos gave Mitchell a safe landing space. Rather than walking humbly after a fall, though, Mitchell continues boldly making pronouncements on how to fix Tennessee schools.

While Shaka Mitchell and his privatizing friends ignore the facts, lawmakers would do well to ignore their advice. Instead, the General Assembly should move to protect Tennessee’s public schools from a private school welfare scheme that has failed everywhere it has been tried.

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The Voucher Fight in Tennessee

In this piece for The Progressive, I detail the persistence of those interests seeking to privatize our public schools — not just in Tennessee, but around the country.

When a popular governor passes a top legislative priority in his first year in office, one might anticipate that the initiative enjoys broad public support. Not so in Tennessee, where Republican Governor Bill Lee secured passage of a school voucher scheme, referred to as Education Savings Accounts. In fact, recent polling suggests only 40 percent of Tennesseans support school vouchers. Five previous attempts to pass some sort of voucher plan have failed, opposed not only by the handful of Democrats in the General Assembly, but also by a significant number of Republicans (mostly representing rural districts).

How did such an unpopular idea become a top priority of a popular governor? Why did the legislature give approval to the use of public money for private schools in 2019 when a bipartisan group of lawmakers had blocked such legislation in the past?

The answer is shockingly simple and unsurprising: money. The details, though, reveal an unrelenting push to dismantle America’s public schools. Yes, this story includes familiar characters like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers joining forces with a Tennessee cast to advance their vision for our nation’s schools. That vision: Public money flowing to private schools with little regard for the impact on students. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear—vouchers simply don’t achieve their stated goal of helping kids improve academic outcomes. Tennessee’s plan could result in taking more than $300 million away from local school districts to support private entities.

Prior to 2019, there were five consecutive attempts by voucher advocates—including DeVos’s American Federation for Children—to pass privatization schemes in Tennessee. All five of those attempts were met with defeat. In fact, the losses were so bad that a number of contract lobbyists hired by Team DeVos quit.

Despite these setbacks, the privatizers were undeterred heading into 2019. Their secret: Incoming Governor Bill Lee.


Prior to his election to the state’s highest office, Lee ran his family’s HVAC company, one of the largest in middle Tennessee. He was a reliable contributor to GOP campaigns and also a strong supporter of the Tennessee arm of American Federation for Children. The signs he’d be making an aggressive voucher push were readily apparent with his early staff hires. Both his policy director and his legislative director had been former staffers of pro-voucher groups.

While Lee was clearly in the pocket of DeVos, he’d need help to convince the legislature to pass an unpopular plan that had failed so many times before. Enter new House Speaker Glen Casada. Casada, a vocal supporter of vouchers, seemed likely to give Lee the legislative victory he wanted, and apparently, he was willing to do so at any cost.

At the time the voucher plan reached the house floor, it appeared to be in trouble. Contentious committee debates indicated faltering support. It was unclear the bill had the needed fifty votes to advance. In fact, when the bill was finally voted on, only forty-nine members voted in favor. It appeared vouchers would again be defeated, even with last-minute tweet-support from Donald Trump. Then, Casada made the unprecedented move of holding the vote open for more than thirty minutes while he conducted “conferences” with members of his caucus who had been recorded as voting against the measure. Finally, Knox County’s Jason Zachary switched his vote and the bill passed, 50-48. Zachary indicated he’d been assured Knox County would be taken out of the final bill.

Zachary’s comment was a familiar refrain among lawmakers who had campaigned in opposition to vouchers but voted in favor. Time and again, rural Republican legislators would announce to constituents that while vouchers were “not right” for their districts, the bill would only apply to Memphis and Nashville. Interestingly, the legislative delegations from those two cities were strong in their opposition to vouchers.

Casada’s strong-arm tactics weren’t the only tools being used to sway votes. Pro-voucher groups backed by funds from Americans for Prosperity ran Facebook ads attacking Republican lawmakers who voted against voucher legislation during the committee process. The ads included text that listed the lawmaker’s name and said they “failed to stand with Donald Trump and Gov. Bill Lee, siding against Tennessee families and their right to access a high-quality public education.”

The FBI is now investigating the house vote that led to the passage of the voucher bill. There’s also an FBI investigation into the campaign finances of the senate sponsor of the bill. And Casada? He’s announced his resignation due to a scandal that earned the attention of John Oliver.

But no matter the outcome of these investigations, backers of school privatization can claim public policy victory. It took a new governor, an unscrupulous house speaker, and untold dark money dollars, but after six attempts, Tennessee now has a school voucher plan—one that could shift more than $300 million away from public schools in the state.

The lesson from Tennessee is clear: Advocates for public education face privatization forces with vast resources and patience. The fight is going to be a long one.

Read this story and more about the fight for America’s public schools at The Progressive.

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Mayor of Vouchers

Is Nashville Mayor David Briley a supporter of school vouchers? His actions certainly don’t indicate he opposes them. In fact, while Governor Bill Lee’s “Education Savings Account” voucher scheme was advancing in the legislature, Briley was working closely with a lobbying firm pushing the plan.

Here’s more on what Briley has said, done, and not done as legislation with a devastating financial impact on Nashville ultimately became law.

You might be asking how the mayor of Tennessee’s largest city ended up working with a prominent law firm that led the charge to undercut and underfund Metro Nashville Public Schools. That’s a great question and one voters may be asking as elections approach in August. Here’s a timeline of Briley’s “Disappearing Dave” act when it comes to fighting for MNPS at the General Assembly.

On January 31, 2018, Nashville was caught off-guard by the biggest mayoral scandal since Bill Boner as Megan Barry admitted to having an affair with her Metro Police bodyguard. 

A little more than a week later, on February 8, Metro entered into an amended “intergovernmental relations” contract with the law firm of Adams & Reese. The firm’s first public work? Its Memphis-based partner Lucian Pera questioned the ethics of the District Attorney Glenn Funk for investigating Barry on February 23Nate Rau of The Tennessean noted on February 28 that Adams & Reese pay from Metro Nashville jumped by 58% just prior to the firm’s interjection into the Barry scandal.

The Barry brouhaha reached its climax on March 6 as she pled guilty to felony theft and resigned from office. Vice Mayor David Briley succeeded Barry as Mayor of “It City.”

On April 30, Briley had his first “State of Metro” address and proclaimed that education is the “biggest key to Nashville’s success.” … then quickly disappeared from education policy discussions.

Meanwhile charter school advocates TennesseeCAN, represented by Adams & Reese, in their 2018 Legislative Report congratulate the Tennessee State Legislature for providing charter schools with more access to public school tax dollars and then call for more money in the future, at the expense of public schools.

The following February, Gov. Bill Lee’s “Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program” — (voucher scheme) is introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly. The bill was strongly supported by TennesseeCAN (among others) and their Adams & Reese lobbyists — TennesseeCAN is located in the Nashville offices of Adams & Reese. Briley issued a strong statement on how this legislation will have a devastating economic impact on Nashville schools. You might think that with such a big gun pointed at Nashville, he would direct the city’s lobbyists to fight against the bill like Memphis and Knoxville did. Instead, Briley did nothing.

On March 29Mayor Briley angrily appeared on television  and threatened the school board, telling them to “get their house in order,” and that future Metro money will come with strings attached.

Meanwhile, the anti-public education forces were on the march at the Capitol. The state House Government Operations Committee approved Bill Lee’s voucher bill on April 1. Briley was quiet.

Three days later, Briley and his staff hosted the “Mayor’s Legislative Reception” at the Bridgestone Arena on April 4. Adams & Reese was the primary sponsor of the reception. Among the attendees are Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, Senate sponsor of Lee’s voucher bill. Number of comments made by Briley about vouchers? Zero.

Metro Councilman Dave Rosenberg on April 9 questioned how Adams & Reese can be lobbying for legislation that is contrary to the will and need of Metro Government’s citizens. Briley’s office said in response they support the firm and added, “vouchers were not discussed during contract negotiations with Adams & Reese.”

Speaker of the House Glen Casada held the House vote open for 30 minutes on April 23 so he could twist one arm enough to pass Gov. Lee’s voucher bill and, in doing so, Knox County was exempted from voucher legislation. Only Memphis and Nashville remained in Casada’s crosshairs.

The same day, Briley held a media availability promoting the “Mayor’s Blood Pressure Check Up.” The photo op is in his office. He made no public statement on vouchers.

At his second State of Metro address, on April 30, Briley states “Education will always be priority number one. There are few things more essential to building a strong Nashville than having great public schools.” He then adds, “While the state of Tennessee will be putting more than $100 million of new money into K-12 schools across the state this year, Metro will get just $587,000 of that.” Maybe having lobbyists who shared the city’s interest in public education would have helped.

(By contrast, when Briley needed to stop the state from preempting his plan to sell off Nashville’s parking meters, he sent his chief of staff, in-house lobbyist, and chief strategy officer.)

On that same day, the Tennessee General Assembly appointed a conference committee to resolve issues on the voucher bill and how it would affect the state’s most populous counties. No one from Davidson County was appointed. Briley was silent.

Gov. Bill Lee signed his voucher bill into state law on May 24, a law that only affects Nashville and Memphis. A law that the city of Nashville was oddly quiet on, yet one that will have a significant impact on the city’s budget for years to come. Briley celebrated the one-year anniversary of his special election victory on the same day instead.

While the state makes preparations to take money out of public schools, the lobbying firm responsible for vouchers continues to cash checks from Metro. All the while, Disappearing Dave says nothing.

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Voucher Sponsor Facing FBI Probe

As Governor Bill Lee signed controversial voucher legislation into law this past week, revelations emerged that the FBI is investigating potentially illegal campaign activity by the Senate sponsor of Lee’s plan.

The Daily Memphian reports Senator Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional campaign faces an investigation into illegal use of state campaign funds for a federal race.


The Tennessee Journal is reporting the Department of Justice talked recently to state lawmakers about alleged “straw donations” into state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s 2016 congressional campaign.


Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who represents East Memphis and Cordova, came in fourth in the Republican primary three years ago. But reports have raised questions about whether money was funneled from his state accounts into his congressional fund, which is illegal.


During the 2016 campaign, his state political action committee, Red State PAC, contributed about $20,000 to state legislators who then gave funds to his congressional race, according to the Tennessee Journal article.

The FBI is also investigating the House vote on voucher legislation to determine if any improper benefits were offered in exchange for votes in favor of the bill.

All of this comes amid the controversy surrounding soon-to-be former House Speaker Glen Casada, who will resign from his leadership role following a months-long scandal which began with the framing of an African-American political activist and included Casada’s appointment of an admitted sex offender to a key leadership role.

Just to be clear: Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that is currently facing an FBI investigation due to alleged impropriety in securing votes. The lead sponsor of that bill in the Senate is ALSO under an FBI investigation.

Rather than wait for the outcome of these investigations, Lee moved forward and signed the bill into law. Lee is so determined to privatize our state’s public schools that he partnered with the nefarious Glen Casada, ignored a potentially illegal vote, and relied on a Senate sponsor who seems to have displayed blatant disregard for campaign finance law.

Make no mistake: Lee is a win at all costs governor. His prize: Taxpayer dollars funneled to private entities with a record of failing to achieve results.

The losers in Lee’s dangerous, morally bankrupt game are the citizens of Tennessee and especially the students and families impacted by a voucher scheme that both fails to help kids and also sucks money from our chronically under-funded public school system.

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Like a Dad Out of Hell?

Back in April, conservative commentator Steve Gill, who publishes the Tennessee Star, wrote an attack piece on Knox County teacher Lauren Sorenson. Gill’s beef with Sorenson seems to be that she had the gall to stand up and speak out for her fellow teachers and also advocate on behalf of students across the state. Gill used Sorenson’s affiliation with the “Badass Teachers Association” (BATs) to label her a “BAT out of Hell.”

Like so many in leadership roles in our state, Gill apparently prefers that teachers keep their voices quiet rather than highlight the unpleasant facts about the teaching profession and our state’s chronically under-funded schools.

Gill has been a consistent supporter of using public money to support private schools by way of voucher schemes. More recently, he’s come to the defense of embattled (and soon to be former) House Speaker Glen Casada. He’s even backed admitted sex offender David Byrd.

That’s why it is so shocking to learn that while Lauren Sorenson is busy fighting for all kids and educating young minds in Knox County, Gill is failing to live up to his parental responsibilities.

The Tennessean has more:

Conservative commentator and former political candidate Steve Gill must pay his ex-wife $170,000 in 10 days or go to jail, a Williamson County judge has ruled. 

In a ruling entered into the court on Sunday, Judge James G. Martin sided with Kathryn B. Gill, who was seeking nearly $236,000 for various expenses related to the divorced couple’s sons. 


Kathryn Gill was seeking $86,000 in child support from Steve Gill, in addition to $4,400 in medical expenses, $133,000 in college expenses and another $11,000 for a car she purchased for the children’s use.

Or, maybe it is not at all surprising that a guy who defends Glen Casada and David Byrd would attack a strong woman fighting for a better future for our state.

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Vouchers Already Impacting Teacher Pay, School Resources

A story out of Coffee County explains how Governor Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (currently under investigation by the FBI), is already impacting teacher pay raises and resources dedicated to public schools:

The day it passed in the senate, April 25 (May 1 for an amended version), the Coffee County Board of Education expressed their concerns and decided it would be more frugal to give their faculty a 1 percent raise instead of a 2 percent raise. This decision had multiple factors involved, including balancing the budget, but the uncertainty of the vouchers was part of the discussion, Aaron explained.

In Manchester, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not pledge money in their 2019-20 budget to assist College Street Elementary School with renovations due, in part, to the uncertainty of the voucher program as well. Alderman Ryan French pointed out the program has the potential to decimate Average Daily Attendance (a facet of BEP), which will reduce funding and therefore put more strain on the local population.

It’s still unclear what the total cost of Lee’s voucher scheme will be should it be fully implemented. Some estimates put the cost at more than $300 million. That’s a significant hit to the state’s school funding formula. Even at the conservative end of the scale, a total cost of around or just above $100 million would mean a significant loss to all districts across Tennessee. To put that amount in perspective, $100 million would fund a four percent raise for all of Tennessee’s teachers.

Lee has already demonstrated he prefers to spend money on voucher schemes and charter schools instead of teacher salaries. His initial budget proposal provided a big boost for charter school facilities while offering only a minor increase in funding for teacher salaries.

Previous analysis indicates that even if the voucher program grows only modestly, the impact to all school systems will be significant:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

In other words, don’t believe the lie that just because your school district isn’t in the current voucher plan, vouchers won’t impact your schools. They absolutely will. Taking $100 million off the table means a big hit to the BEP formula, a plan that already struggles to meet the needs of our state’s schools.

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Scary Moon

While Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative victory, a school voucher plan, faces FBI scrutiny, legislators who backed the scheme are now facing the wrath of voters. Sure, one newly elected state Senator wasted no time in demonstrating his capacity for lying to constituents. Now, a retired teacher from Maryville takes Rep. Jerome Moon to task for his campaign lies:


I worked 34 years as a teacher in Maryville City Schools. I am horrified the voucher bill passed. I live in District 8. I am a constituent of state Rep. Jerome Moon. I hold Moon responsible for killing public schools in Maryville and in Tennessee.
He told representatives from the teachers’ union and school superintendents that he’d vote against the voucher bill, but then voted for it. He was dismissive of educators’ concerns, dodged emails, phone calls and pleas for conversations from his constituents and refuses to be held accountable. I want to know why?

The story told here about Moon is a story heard time and again across Tennessee. Yes, Jason Zachary pledged to be a voucher opponent. That is, until embattled Speaker Glen Casada needed a key vote. Then, there’s state representative Matthew Hill. Until this legislative session, Hill was a staunch opponent of school vouchers. Enter Glen Casada and his regime of lies, racism, backstabbing, lewd sexual conduct, and shady deals. This session, Hill became one of the most ardent supporters of vouchers, likely confusing his constituents while pleasing his new leader, Speaker Casada. How much did Hill’s soul cost? Was it more ore less expensive than Zachary’s?

What about your representative? Did they sell out your local schools? Are you represented by someone who was once a voucher opponent and now shifted their views? If you have a voucher story to share, email me at andy@tnedreport.com.

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Secret Voucher Man

So we know Governor Bill Lee’s controversial voucher plan narrowly passed after gaining the support of Lee’s besties Lee Beaman and Betsy DeVos while earning opposition from Tennesseans across the state. So much opposition, legislators representing 93 counties opted their districts out of the bill.

Now, we also know the FBI is investigating whether anything improper occurred in the backroom dealings that led to the bill’s passage. We saw at least one lawmaker change his vote at the last minute after arm-twisting by House Speaker Glen Casada. Other lawmakers reported receiving offers from Governor Lee or Speaker Casada in order to switch their votes.

Here’s what Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 is reporting:


FBI agents have begun interviewing Tennessee lawmakers about whether any improper incentives were offered to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school vouchers bill in the state House, NewsChannel 5 Investigates has learned.

It’s also interesting that in light of all the recent revelations about Glen Casada, Bill Lee has been reluctant to call on Casada to resign. It seems likely that without Casada’s help, Lee would have failed to achieve many of his legislative goals this session. Now, Casada’s true character is coming to light and Bill Lee is refusing to take a clear stand.

But hey, at least we have vouchers and a state charter authorizer, and as an added bonus, Lee signed the legislature’s bill that criminalized voter registration so that even if some Tennesseans are now motivated to vote Lee and his allies out, they’ll find it harder to get that done.

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