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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PET on Voucher Passage

Immediately following yesterday’s passage of Governor Bill Lee’s “Education Savings Account” voucher program, Professional Educators of Tennessee sent out this statement:

The Tennessee General Assembly today voted to support a second Education Savings Account type program.  The legislation which passed today will serve up to 15,000 lower income students in Nashville and Memphis, after five years.  It will very likely face legal challenges.  Education policy must support all children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the integrity that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community and ultimately gain employment with a sustainable living wage. Public education still provides the best opportunity for most children to obtain that success.  We do not envision this limited pilot program changing that fact.   The vast majority of our schools are incredibly successful, as are the teachers who serve and students who attend them. 

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How Much is that Voucher in the Window?

Both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee Senate today passed Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher (Education Savings Account) scheme and the measure now heads to his desk for signing.

The bill passed despite the fact that no one could clearly articulate the ultimate cost of the program. An early version of analysis by the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee indicated the cost could be as much as $335 million by 2024.

As the Senate began debate on the measure, that large amount caused some concern (our state underfunds schools by at least $500 million). Not long after that concern was expressed, a “new” fiscal analysis appeared. This time, the projected cost was some $165 million. But wait, that still seems pretty high, right.

Not to fear, Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson and Conference Committee Report author Brian Kelsey assured lawmakers the actual cost would be roughly HALF what the fiscal analysis suggest because there won’t be enough students to meet the program’s caps in the early years.

Wait, what?! We’re supposed to count on a program being unpopular so it won’t cost so much? But, Governor Lee says everyone wants this. He campaigned on it, even. In fact, the plan is so desirable, legislators in 93 counties worked their asses off to ensure it didn’t impact their school districts.

During the debate, Senator Richard Briggs of Knoxville noted that once the door to vouchers was opened, it wouldn’t be closed. He cited the example of the failed Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by K-12, Inc. Despite years of poor performance, the school is STILL allowed to operate.

Of course, there’s also the experience of Indiana. There, a limited voucher program was started by then-Governor Mitch Daniels. Then, under Mike Pence, the program expanded rapidly and now costs more than $150 million per year.

What’s worse, the legislature supported a program backed by the Governor despite overwhelming evidence the plan simply won’t help kids. In fact, research suggests that kids who receive vouchers perform no better than their non-voucher peers in reading and actually fall behind in math.

Oh, and then there’s the fraud. Rep. Mark White of Memphis USED To care about this, until Governor Lee and Speaker Glen Casada told him to stop.

So, to summarize: We don’t know how much this plan will ultimately cost. We don’t know how many kids will use it. We don’t know how large it will grow. We don’t know how the state will prevent fraud. We don’t know how, or even if, we’ll be able to shut it down if the results are as bad as the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

We do know this: Vouchers haven’t worked. Anywhere. We also know that somewhere between $70 million and $200 million will be shifted from current education funding to a voucher scheme. We know the low end of that would give our state’s teachers a badly needed additional 2.5% raise. We know the $200 million+ price tag that’s very possible if our state tracks others in expansion would mean an 8% raise. We know our schools are underfunded by AT LEAST $500 million according to the state’s Republican Comptroller. We know Tennessee is 45th in education funding. We know we spend $67 less (inflation adjusted) per pupil now than we did in 2010.

Instead of addressing any of that, we’ve watched our lawmakers do Governor Lee’s bidding so he can claim victory on one of his signature initiatives.

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BOOM!

A joint statement from Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools on Governor Bill Lee’s ESA voucher scheme:

Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Metro Nashviille Public Schools (MNPS) released a joint statement on Monday in opposition of the highly controversial Education Savings Account bill that passed both the state House and Senate last week.

In the statement, the districts call the bill unconstitutional because it affects only a small portion of school districts, which includes both SCS and MNPS. If the bill is signed into law, both districts say they are prepared to challenge its legality in court.

  You can read the full statement below:

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 (MNPS), as there are school districts, such as Madison County 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 the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law remain intact for the children and families of our districts and state

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Out of the Gate

Bill Powers is brand new to the Tennessee State Senate. He was elected in a special election on Tuesday night to fill the Clarksville-area seat vacated when Mark Green was elected to Congress.

During the campaign, Powers promised he’d be against vouchers if elected. The race, decided by around 1000 votes, was relatively close. It’s possible if he’d said he supported vouchers, he would have lost the race.

While new to the body, he’s apparently not new to the art of creative deception. The very first bill Powers voted on was Governor Bill Lee’s voucher proposal. How did Powers vote? He voted YES.

Less than 48 hours after winning an election where he told voters he had one position on vouchers, he “changed his mind” after talking with Bill Lee and voted the other way.

That seems like a pretty big deal. Powers will face voters again in 2020 should he choose to run for a full 4-year term. It will be interesting to see how he explains his outright lie to the voters next year.

Photo/text courtesy of TN Holler

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