Vouchers, Snot-Nosed Otters, and Other Salamanders, Revisited

May 15th, 2020

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(published in The Daily Memphian)

Last May, I read that the governor of Pennsylvania had named the hellbender as the state’s official amphibian. The hellbender is a two-foot-long, nocturnal salamander also known as a “snot-nosed otter.” 

That brought on a column.

We already have an official state amphibian: the Tennessee cave salamander. I know. I looked it up hoping the position was open so Governor Bill Lee could get right on it and better occupy his time.

A year ago, the whole school voucher thing was our new governor’s number one priority. Climbing around in Tennessee caves and digging in the mud for some creature to name the official state something-or-other has to be much cleaner than the mess he’s made of this. 

A year later, it’s just gotten dirtier. 

First, he called his voucher program an “education savings account.” Nobody’s saving a thing. Handing a parent a $7,300 voucher for every child moved from public school to private school is the taking of critical public resources and support from already underfunded systems. This is about losing, not saving.

Next, Gov. Lee said the money taken would be returned to each district … with strings attached, of course. But even that dubious promise was broken. The law would return some of the money to urban districts for a limited time, but they’ll have to split it with rural districts. 

In other words, to get the rural lawmakers’ vote, those lawmakers had to make a little something. Without losing a penny of their public school money to private schools, they get some of the money the targeted urban districts are losing. Urban kids lose again.

It’s all slimier and uglier than Pennsylvania’s snot-nosed otter. 

Then, to waltz the whole thing through, the governor and his dance partner, then House Speaker Glen Casada, had to do a little two-step. When confronted with a tie that would have killed the law for now, Casada decided to stall the vote … for almost 45 minutes … a new state record. It took almost 45 minutes of arm-twisting and deal making to flip one vote: Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville. They gave him an ironic prize to switch his vote to yes: Assurances that Knox County would be removed from the legislation. 

In other words, Zachary only voted for vouchers when assured that vouchers wouldn’t be in his county. Patsy Hazlewood, a Hamilton County Republican, did the same. As a matter of fact, the law made only Shelby County and Davidson County eligible for vouchers.

They passed it, with Shelby and Davidson public schools paying the price, despite the fact the districts in both counties were against it. State Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown carried the law’s water in the Senate and defended it in court, despite his own admission that his Senate district was against it. Urban districts lose again. 

After it passed, Gov. Lee sped up the timetable for implementation trying to beat the court challenges the new law was attracting and get under the eyebrows it was raising. Along the way, he added to the problem by throwing $2.5 million of unbudgeted money to a Florida company called ClassWallet in a no-bid contract to run the finances of the program. More public school money sliding away.

It’s all slicker and smellier than our own Tennessee cave salamander. 

It’s bad law, and a self-inflicted wound to our then brand-new governor. He used his honeymoon period to shove school vouchers down the throats of just two districts already strangled for cash. To get it to pass in both the state House and Senate, he had to spend a considerable amount of his political capital and spread promises and pork from Germantown to Rocky Top.

A year later, Casada is no longer Speaker, and the TBI and FBI are looking into the details of those promises and the smell of that pork.

A year later, ruling in a suit by the Shelby County and Davidson County governments, Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin last week declared the Education Savings Account Act “unconstitutional, unlawful and unenforceable.”

Gov. Lee called the day the House passed the law last year an “historic day.” If so, the bar for historic days is lower than a salamander’s belly.

The administration says it will appeal, still believing after all of this that private schools have a right to public school tax money, but I happen to believe that the salamanders are scattering for cover as light shines down in this metaphorical cave. 

I’m a Memphian, and a bad private deal is being made public.

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