While U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos isn’t convincing members of Congress to expand education choices for families, she found a more receptive audience Monday in Tennessee.
DeVos joined Gov. Bill Lee to visit a Nashville charter school where students have shown academic gains. Earlier in the day, she talked about school choice with about 30 parents, educators, and elected leaders during a closed-door roundtable discussion at the state Capitol, where two education choice proposals from the new Republican governor have momentum.
“I’m really cheering the governor and all of the legislators on here,” DeVos told reporters during a brief news conference at LEAD Cameron, a middle school operated by a Nashville-based charter network.
“School choice and education freedom is on the march,” she added.
One of Lee’s proposals would start a new type of education voucher program in Tennessee, and the other would create a state commission with the power to open charter schools anywhere across Tennessee through an appeals process.
Those bills have cleared key legislative hurdles and appear to be barreling toward votes in the full House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans. The voucher proposal advanced Monday afternoon out of the House’s rulemaking committee and could be taken up Wednesday for the first time in a Senate committee.
The secretary arrived in Tennessee badly needing a win, having gotten little traction in Congress for a $5 billion federal tax credit she pitched in February to fund scholarships to private schools and other educational programs. The recent dust-up over de-funding Special Olympics — her proposed federal budget cut that President Donald Trump later overruled — didn’t help her image either.
But Tennessee is a deep red state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump and — except for a small group of protesters yelling “fully fund our schools!” outside of LEAD Cameron middle school — DeVos received a warm welcome.
Whether the endorsement of an unpopular education secretary could actually energize opposition to Lee’s proposal in Tennessee is yet to be seen.
“Tennesseans don’t trust the governor’s voucher plan, and I don’t think the endorsement of Secretary DeVos will reassure anybody, especially after she spent last week stumping for budget cuts to the Special Olympics,” said Democrat Jeff Yarbro, the Senate minority leader from Nashville.
Her visit inspired retiree Nancy Stetten, who volunteers at a Nashville elementary school, to join about 15 protesters across the street from LEAD Cameron.
“I’m here as a private citizen because I think our public schools are under attack,” said Stetten, whose two children graduated from Nashville public schools. “We should fully fund our public schools — not take money away. I think the governor is truly ramrodding his plans down our throats.”
This story will be updated.
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