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Tennessee Gov. Lee bets large on faculty vouchers with GOP major endorsements


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On the Midway Market in Franklin, Tennessee, the place locals come for a superb hamburger and pleasant dialog, Republican Brian Beathard works the group as a candidate for a high-profile legislative seat forward of a pivotal session on the way forward for the state’s schooling system.

By most requirements, Beathard needs to be a shoo-in to interchange departing state Rep. Sam Whitson, a four-term Republican lawmaker who’s retiring this yr.

Beathard (pronounced BETH-ard) has served on the Williamson County Fee since 2010 and, as its present chairman, has a document of advocating for presidency effectivity, competence, and conservatism in a predominantly Republican group.

He’s been endorsed by prime native leaders, together with Whitson, three mayors, and a retired sheriff.

And he’s the one one among three Republican candidates for the District 65 seat who has repeatedly lived and labored for greater than 25 years within the prosperous suburban county south of Nashville.

However when Republican Gov. Invoice Lee handed out endorsements in key statehouse major races final month, Beathard obtained bypassed due to his stance on a single challenge: non-public faculty vouchers.

Lee is betting large on a coverage wherein he’s had main victories throughout his almost six years in workplace, however has nonetheless fallen in need of his final aim: taxpayer funding for personal faculty tuition for any Tennessee pupil who desires it — together with these from middle-class and rich households — all underneath the banner of “faculty selection.”

Lee’s common voucher proposal stalled within the legislature this spring, even with a GOP supermajority. Now, in anticipation of a do-over, the governor is taking the bizarre step of utilizing his bully pulpit to endorse sure Republican candidates over others.

A proponent of native management, Beathard — like Whitson — opposes the governor’s plan, particularly for Williamson County, residence to 2 of the state’s top-performing public faculty districts.

“Our colleges are our oceanfront property, so we should always take a tough pause on something that would negatively have an effect on our college students, our colleges, our property values, or our capacity to draw enterprise,” Beathard mentioned of Williamson County, the place such large firms as Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors, Mars Petcare, and Tractor Provide Co. have their U.S. headquarters.

Three people dressed in business clothing sit behind a desk with computer screens and microphones in front of them.
From left, Brian Beathard, Michelle Foreman, and Lee Reeves seem at a candidate discussion board in Franklin on June 6, 2024, as they marketing campaign to succeed state Rep. Sam Whitson, a retiring lawmaker who opposes non-public faculty vouchers. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

The governor, who is also from Williamson County and graduated from a public highschool in Franklin, as an alternative is backing actual property investor and legal professional Lee Reeves, who moved to Tennessee 5 years in the past from Texas. Reeves, who serves on a neighborhood zoning appeals board, helps faculty vouchers, as does candidate Michelle Foreman, a former member of the state’s Republican govt committee.

Whoever wins the three-way Republican major on Aug. 1 is prone to succeed Whitson.

And Lee is raring to interchange voucher opponents like Whitson with supporters to realize his prime coverage precedence.

Governor is ‘taking a danger’ by wading into contested primaries

After his common voucher proposal collapsed in committees over Republican disagreements in regards to the specifics, the governor pledged to vet GOP legislative candidates this election yr primarily based on his faculty selection agenda.

“I’ve mentioned plenty of instances I get engaged in elections, and I get engaged in candidates,” he instructed reporters in Might, promising to “perceive who I might be most supportive and most useful to.”

He’s following the playbook of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who efficiently used faculty selection as a litmus check to take away anti-voucher Republican candidates from races, enabling Iowa to go common vouchers in 2023 and positioning Texas for a doubtlessly comparable consequence subsequent yr.

“The governor already put his popularity on the road to get vouchers by means of this spring and it didn’t work, so now he’s taking part in hardball. However he’s additionally taking a danger.”

—  John Geer, political science professor, Vanderbilt College

But when Lee’s endorsees lose their major races to candidates like Beathard, the governor could discover it even tougher to push his schooling agenda by means of the legislature in 2025 as he enters his final two years in workplace, accelerating his lame duck standing.

“The governor already put his popularity on the road to get vouchers by means of this spring and it didn’t work, so now he’s taking part in hardball,” mentioned John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt College.

“However he’s additionally taking a danger,” Geer continued. “If a few of these candidates who didn’t get his endorsement survive, they’ll be much more entrenched” in opposition to vouchers.

In keeping with Beathard, Lee and members of his workers didn’t communicate personally with him about his place earlier than asserting which candidates he was backing.

A small-business proprietor who supported Lee’s marketing campaign for governor, Beathard isn’t utterly against vouchers, however desires native officers to have the ability to make the ultimate name — a deference that wasn’t a part of Lee’s 2019 schooling financial savings account regulation that imposed vouchers on Memphis and Nashville over the opposition of most native officers.

“My ears are open if there have been a neighborhood choice so Williamson County can decide out and counties that want that coverage can decide in,” Beathard mentioned.

A man in a dark suit stands between two women who in a conference room.
Brian Beathard, heart, speaks with residents following a candidate discussion board on June 6, 2024. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

Professional-voucher pursuits have the governor’s ear

Lee’s endorsements in his residence county, in addition to a handful of different state legislative races, typically mirror these introduced earlier by Individuals for Prosperity, a pro-voucher group affiliated with Kansas billionaire Charles Koch’s conservative advocacy community.

“We plan to place the total weight of our grassroots efforts behind every of our coverage champions,” mentioned Tori Venable, the group’s Tennessee chief, when rolling out a number of slates of endorsements in Might.

A big amount of cash can also be coming into the state from pro-voucher pursuits.

The American Federation for Youngsters launched a Tremendous PAC for the 2024 elections cycle with not less than $10 million to help pro-voucher candidates in state legislative races nationwide.

“In the event you’re a candidate or lawmaker who opposes faculty selection and freedom in schooling, you’re a goal. In the event you’re a champion for folks, we’ll be your protect,” mentioned Tommy Schultz, the group’s nationwide CEO and its former spokesperson in Tennessee.

That’s simply one of many considerations of Whitson, the departing state consultant.

“The governor’s endorsement in District 65 opens the door for darkish cash from out of state to get into this marketing campaign, in order that our governor can attempt to safe yet one more vote for his voucher program,” Whitson mentioned.

One other voucher vote possible can be shut in Tennessee’s Home

Lee, who cruised to victory in two elections after campaigning to offer dad and mom extra schooling decisions for his or her kids, appeared to have sufficient Senate votes to go a statewide voucher plan this yr, however couldn’t rally the Home’s GOP supermajority to do the identical.

His 2019 proposal to create a voucher program for Tennessee’s two largest city areas squeaked by means of the legislature after then-Home Speaker Glen Casada held the voting board open for 38 minutes to persuade Rep. Jason Zachary, of Knoxville, to vary from “no” to “sure.” That controversial parliamentary maneuver stays a supply of bitterness on either side of the aisle, in line with Whitson.

“There’s nonetheless plenty of fallout from that vote,” Whitson mentioned. “However ethically and morally, I think about my ‘no’ vote on that day to be the very best vote I ever solid.”

Supporters say common vouchers would put all Tennessee dad and mom in command of their kids’s schooling by making non-public colleges a extra reasonably priced choice.

Critics like Whitson say the coverage would destabilize public schooling, bust the state’s funds, and additional segregate colleges by race, earnings, and college students with disabilities, setting the stage for discrimination lawsuits in opposition to the state and varied taking part non-public colleges.

“Quite a lot of Republicans really feel just like the governor is placing us in a nasty place along with his voucher plan,” Whitson mentioned. “And plenty of are additionally disenchanted at his tactic of injecting himself within the major races.”

A man in a dark suit stands behind a wooden podium with a Tennessee state flag and three men standing in the background.
With Senate leaders within the background, Gov. Invoice Lee speaks with reporters on April 25, 2024, on the shut of the legislative session. He vowed to convey his non-public faculty voucher proposal, which stalled in committees, again to the Tennessee Normal Meeting in 2025. (Picture courtesy of the State of Tennessee)

Scott Golden, who chairs the state Republican Celebration, mentioned Lee has been speaking about his ardour for varsity selection since he first ran for governor eight years in the past. Lee additionally has a proper, he mentioned, to marketing campaign for points which might be vital to him.

“We see it on a regular basis on the nationwide stage. Elected officers are free to make their voices heard throughout an election cycle, similar to anyone else,” Golden mentioned.

Hendrell Remus, who chairs the Tennessee Democratic Celebration, has a special take.

“The governor is keen to tear his Republican caucus to shreds with a view to go one merchandise on his agenda,” Remus mentioned. “However I feel voters will step up and reject the candidates who Gov. Lee is making an attempt to prop up. It’s a possibility for Democrats.”

It’s unclear how the governor’s endorsements will play out this election yr. Outcomes of voter polls on vouchers fluctuate wildly in Tennessee.

However for Lucetta Mannion, a Republican voter in Williamson County, Lee’s backing of a pro-voucher candidate over Beathard helped to convey the problem to her consideration — and steered her towards Beathard’s camp.

“I’ve completed my analysis,” mentioned Mannion, whose 5 grandchildren have attended native public colleges. “Our colleges are glorious, and I see no cause to have a voucher system for our kids. If Brian wins, it is going to be yet one more vote within the legislature in opposition to it.”

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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