Gov.-elect Lee names Tennessee voucher advocate as his policy director

The former Tennessee director of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children will serve as policy director in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration.

The incoming Republican governor named Tony Niknejad to one of a handful of senior staff positions on Tuesday as he announced his first round of key appointments. Niknejad previously served as policy director of Lee’s campaign.

His new status in Lee’s administration sends a clear message that the next governor is serious about his campaign pledge to give parents more choices when it comes to educating their children.

As policy director in the governor’s office, Niknejad will work closely with Lee and supervise the governor’s other advisers on education, health care, public safety, jobs, and other issues, especially when it comes to mapping out legislative strategies and developing the governor’s proposed budget.

On education, Niknejad will be a friendly voice on school vouchers and similar programs that critics brand as “privatization” because they would shift taxpayer money from public schools to subsidize private school tuition or homeschooling.

Legislative efforts to pass vouchers have failed for more than a decade in Tennessee, but advocates are expected to push hard again when the next General Assembly convenes in January following a significant turnover in the House on Election Day.

Recent research suggests that vouchers lead to lower student test scores, particularly in math. Some studies, though, also find that voucher students are somewhat more likely to graduate high school or enroll in college.

The American Federation for Children was famously chaired by voucher proponent Betsy DeVos before the Michigan billionaire became U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump.

As the organization’s Tennessee director, Niknejad lobbied for laws that would usher in vouchers or voucher-like programs and expand and support the state’s charter sector. He also coordinated a political action committee that gave money to candidates in favor of a “school choice” agenda. The group’s website said Niknejad oversaw the support of 29 successful campaigns across three election cycles, during which he worked to unseat five incumbents.

A graduate of the University of Georgia and Vanderbilt Law School and a native of LaGrange, Georgia, the 33-year-old Niknejad previously has worked with the Republican Party in Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee. He also served as a policy staffer for the Tennessee State Senate and chairman of the Davidson County Young Republicans.

In other hires, Lee named a former member of the State Board of Education to be his deputy and chief counsel.

Memphis attorney Lang Wiseman had been appointed to the education policy board in 2017 and stepped down in April after Gov. Bill Haslam appointed him to the board of trustees for the University of Tennessee, his alma mater. As Lee’s new chief counsel, Wiseman plans to leave the UT board as well, according to Laine Arnold, who was named Lee’s press secretary on Tuesday.