Voucher Vultures Face FBI Raid

Former House Speaker Glen Casada and other members of the House GOP as well as some staffers woke this morning to FBI agents searching their homes and offices. The raid appears to be targeting those involved in a plot to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme during the 2019 legislative session. That scheme has since been ruled unconstitutional by Tennessee courts.

Nashville’s NewsChannel5 has more:

FBI agents raided the homes of former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada and other Republican allies early Friday morning, as well as their legislative offices, as part of an unspecified probe into possible public corruption.

Sources tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that searches were also executed at the homes of Robin Smith and newly elected Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg.

NewsChannel 5 also spotted FBI agents outside the homes of former Casada aides Cade Cothren and Holt Whitt. Agents were seen carrying evidence out of Cothren’s downtown Nashville apartment.

The raid comes just days before Gov. Bill Lee’s planned special session on education issues.

Tennessee Republicans have been trying for years to direct public dollars to private schools through a variety of voucher schemes. They narrowly succeeded (by a single vote) in 2019 when then-Speaker Casada held the vote on the voucher bill open for more than 30 minutes while he and top aides negotiated with legislators.

The subsequent FBI investigation into the vote and today’s raid suggest those negotiations went beyond typical legislative horse trading and into potentially illegal territory.

In typical fashion, Gov. Bill Lee said today he has no knowledge of the subject of the raid and that he trusts the current House Speaker, Cameron Sexton, to handle the situation with his members. Apparently, the buck never stops with Lee.

Lee has vowed to continue pursuit of a voucher scheme and his team continues to press their case in the courts. Certainly, today’s events may give pause to some potential supporters of the ill-advised program.

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Fiscus Set to Challenge Casada

Williamson County School Board member Brad Fiscus plans to challenge state representative and outgoing House Speaker Glen Casada in the 2020 elections, the Tennessean reports:

Williamson County Board of Education member Brad Fiscus, 4th District, confirmed on Monday he plans to pull a petition to run against embattled lawmaker Rep. Glen Casada, 63rd District, in the 2020 state House election. 

Fiscus, a 22-year resident of Williamson County, was elected as a school board member in 2018 and serves as a director of Next Gen Discipleship ministry as part of the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Fiscus was also heavily involved in Pastors for Tennessee Children, a faith-based advocacy group dedicated to supporting public schools. In his role with the organization, he was a leader in opposing the school voucher scheme that ultimately passed the House under Casada’s leadership.

Fiscus will make the challenge to Casada as Independent.

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Byrd Attack

Governor Bill Lee failed to call on admitted sex offender and state Rep. David Byrd to step down from his leadership post on an education subcommittee following a meeting between Lee and one of Byrd’s accusers. However, Lee’s henchman, House Speaker Glen Casada, removed Byrd from his leadership post following Byrd’s vote in opposition to Lee’s school voucher scheme. Now, a group funded by Bill Lee is attacking Byrd with online ads.

The Tennessee Federation for Children, the Tennessee affiliate of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, is running ads accusing Byrd of refusing to stand with President Trump and Governor Lee on vouchers.

Before he was elected Governor, Lee gave thousands of dollars to the Tennessee Federation for Children and wrote pieces in favor of school vouchers. Once elected, he hired the former state director of TFC as his policy director.

The message is clear: If you oppose Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda, you’ll face the wrath of dark money political organizations funded by Lee. The attacks on Byrd come after another dark money group, Tennesseans for Student Success, spent money attacking House Education Republicans who stood in the way of Lee’s state charter authorizer. That plan is a way for Lee and his privatizing profiteers to circumvent local school boards and force charters where they aren’t wanted and don’t belong.

The next two to three weeks will be pivotal in the fight for Tennessee’s public schools.

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Bye Bye Byrd

Admitted sex offender David Byrd is out as chair of a House Education subcommittee just one day after his vote against Governor Bill Lee’s school voucher plan. While some had speculated Byrd might vote in favor of vouchers in exchange for cover from Lee, Byrd voted NO on Lee’s plan yesterday in the full House Education Committee.

The move to oust Byrd comes after months of controversy surrounding his appointment to the post. Speaker Glen Casada and Governor Bill Lee backed Byrd despite calls from the public for him to resign. In 2018, both Lt. Governor Randy McNally and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell called on Byrd to resign from the General Assembly. Instead, he ran for re-election and won, then was appointed by Casada to a subcommittee chairmanship.

The Tennessean reports on Byrd’s removal:

Citing bipartisan concerns over the controversy surrounding Rep. David Byrd, House Speaker Glen Casada has removed the Waynesboro Republican from his chairmanship of an education subcommittee.  

The move, announced by Casada on Thursday, comes just two months after the speaker appointed Byrd — who has faced allegations that he sexually assaulted three women in the 1980s — to serve as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee.

“Following discussions with members of the House and after careful consideration, I have formally asked Representative Byrd to step down from his position as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee,” the speaker said in a statement.

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Casada to Rape Victims: Move

House Speaker Glen Casada has already appointed an admitted sex offender to a position of leadership in the House of Representatives. Now, he’s doubling down on his support of Education Administration Subcommittee Chair David Byrd.

Here’s more from the Tennessean:

House Speaker Glen Casada says he will continue to defend a Republican lawmaker accused of sexual assault against multiple former students, recently questioning the credibility of the women who came forward and implying that victims of rape should move.

On the topic of the women’s credibility, Kanew told Casada that the women had been ostracized in their community as a result of coming forward with allegations against Byrd.

“If it’s important, and it is —  it’d be important to me if I was raped, I would move,” Casada said.

Casada’s remarks come in a video interview with a reporter from new media site TNHoller.

Last year, both then-House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Governor Randy McNally called on Byrd to resign from the legislature. Instead, Byrd sought and won re-election.

Last month, at the Education Administration Subcommittee’s organizational meeting, not a single member of the all male committee mentioned Byrd’s past or called on him to resign.

Today, the committee met and considered business as if it was not at all unusual for an admitted sex offender to chair a legislative committee.

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Not a Single Member

Yesterday, the House Education Administration Subcommittee met for the first time. The meeting was the first chaired by admitted sex offender David Byrd.

Readers will recall that while both former House Speaker Beth Harwell and current Lt. Governor Randy McNally called on Byrd to resign from the legislature last year, current House Speaker Glen Casada gave Byrd a key leadership role on education policy.

At yesterday’s meeting, Byrd asked each committee member to introduce himself (the committee is made up of seven men) and state an interesting fact.

Each member proceeded to attempt humor. Not a single member used the opportunity to call on Byrd to resign from his committee leadership post. Instead, they acted as if having an admitted sex offender at the helm of a legislative committee was just business as usual.

Here’s a link to the committee membership.

And here’s a picture of the six men who sat in silence while an admitted sex offender chaired a committee:

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Admitted Sex Offender Earns House Education Post

What a difference a year makes. Last year, former House Speaker Beth Harwell was calling on state representative David Byrd to resign amid allegations he had improper sexual relationships with high school students he had coached. Now, new House Speaker Glen Casada has appointed Byrd to Chair the House Education Administration Subcommittee.

The Tennessean has more:

Despite calls from protesters — and the previous House speaker — for his resignation, a state lawmaker accused of inappropriate sexual conduct against multiple teens has been named chairman of an education subcommittee.

Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, has been assigned by newly-elected House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, to lead the education administration subcommittee.

The announcement came Thursday when committees were assigned on the floor of the House, immediately following required sexual harassment training.

As the Tennessean story notes, Byrd was 28 and a basketball coach when he is accused of having inappropriate sexual conduct with two players who were then 15 and one who was 16. Despite Byrd’s denial of wrongdoing, a recorded phone call provided to Nashville’s WSMV-TV has Byrd apologizing to one of the women accusing him of misconduct.

The story also notes that in addition to Harwell, Lt. Governor Randy McNally called on Byrd to resign last year. Instead, Glen Casada has elevated Byrd to a key leadership role overseeing our state’s education policy.

Casada’s indifference to Byrd’s misconduct should come as no surprise to legislative observers. After all, Casada was well-known as mentor and adviser to former State Rep. Jeremy Durham, the first Tennessee House member ever to be expelled from the body. Durham was expelled after multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct that took place during his short time in office.

Despite his penchant for enabling sex offenders, Casada received 75 votes in the Speaker’s race, including the support of Democrats Johnny Shaw, John Mark Windle, and John DeBerry. Republican Bob Ramsey was absent, but all other Republicans voted in favor of Casada. DeBerry, like Casada, is a long-time supporter of school vouchers – a priority apparently more important to him than protecting children from sexual predators. While Windle received a committee chairmanship, there’s no clear explanation for why Shaw supported Casada over Democrat Karen Camper.

Now, instead of being returned home to repent of his sins, Byrd will remain in the House and be a key player in state education issues.

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Voucher Backers Earn Leadership Roles

While it is certainly clear that incoming Governor Bill Lee is a supporter of using public money to fund private schools by way of vouchers, it’s also worth noting that top leadership in both legislative bodies have a record of supporting school vouchers and receiving support from pro-voucher groups.

Soon-to-be House Speaker Glen Casada has long been a proponent of vouchers and has received thousands of dollars in campaign funding from groups like Students First/TennesseeCAN and the Betsy DeVos-backed Tennessee Federation for Children.

Likewise, newly-elected House Republican (and Majority) Leader William Lamberth has consistently received backing from pro-voucher groups.

Over in the Senate, the Lt. Governor’s spot continues to be held by Randy McNally, a long-time supporter of voucher schemes.

The number two job in the Senate again falls to Ferrell Haile of Sumner County, who between 2012 and 2016 was among the largest recipients (more than $20,000) of campaign backing from pro-voucher groups. Haile has also co-sponsored voucher legislation in spite of his local School Board opposing the measure.

The bottom line: The hot topic in the 2019 legislative session figures to be school vouchers.

One key fact to keep in mind as this debate rages: Vouchers don’t work.

What’s more, Indiana’s experience with what started as a relatively small voucher program quickly ballooned into millions of dollars in public money diverted to private schools:

Reports suggest this provision means Indiana is spending some $54 million supporting private schools — money that would not have been spent without the voucher program:

A report on the program released by the Department of Education shows the program costs $54 million.

“If the idea behind a voucher program is we’re going to have the money follow the student, if the student didn’t start in a public school, the money isn’t following them from a public school, it’s just appearing from another budget,” [Researcher Molly] Stewart said. “And we’re not exactly sure where that’s coming from.”

Vouchers, then, create $54 million in new expenditures — an education funding deficit — in Indiana.

So, even as our state’s policy leaders are squarely in the corner of voucher schemes — some bought and paid for by voucher backers, others, like Bill Lee, among those doing the buying — it’s important to stay focused on the facts. Vouchers are expensive and vouchers don’t work.

 

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A-F Grading System for Schools to be Delayed?

That’s what House Majority Leader Glen Casada, who sponsored the legislation, is saying. Under his proposal, which mirrors A-F school grading systems in other states (Texas, Florida, Indiana), the Tennessee Department of Education’s annual school report card would assign a letter grade from A-F to each school in the state.

The legislation mandated the creation of the A-F scale, and the Department has designed a plan. Now, after seeing the proposed plan, Casada says it may need some work and a one year delay could give the state time to improve the proposal.

Emily West reports:

“We have been working with the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and delayed the A-F grading one year,” Casada said. “It gives heartache to many systems. We called all parties. We said there are problems with the way you want to implement it.”

As written and passed by the legislature in 2016, new accountability standards that give letter grades to each school across the state should go into effect for 2017.

The news of the possible delay comes as some education leaders are calling for the proposal to be scrapped altogether.

Legislative action is required to delay the implementation and it seems likely there will also be legislation that aims to eliminate the system entirely.

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Williamson County House Races

Williamson Strong has a breakdown of the education views of candidates in House districts 63 and 65, in Williamson County. The races feature Glen Casada vs. Courtenay Rogers (District 63) and Holly McCall vs. Sam Whitson (District 65).

It’s worth noting that both McCall and Rogers oppose school vouchers while Casada clearly supports them. Whitson’s position on the issue is less clear.

Take a look to see where these candidates stand on education issues.

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