Betsy DeVos joins Tennessee governor in full-court press for expanded school choice

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 programs with about 30  elected leaders, supporters, and parents during a closed-door roundtable discussion at the state Capitol, where two controversial 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. “I know that Tennessee has continued to advance opportunities for children, and I’m convinced that they’re going to continue to do the right thing for kids.”

One of Lee’s proposals would start a new type of education voucher program, 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 later on Monday out of the House’s rulemaking committee and could be taken up Wednesday for the first time in the voucher-friendly Senate.

The charter plan — billed as a way to open more high-quality charter schools and close struggling ones — is also slated for hearings this week in two committees.

DeVos said she supports giving the state authority to overrule local school boards that deny charter applications, as well as to run those schools when local districts decline.

“I happen to be a proponent of states really taking the lead in almost all of education,” she said. “Where there are options that are blocked or thwarted, I think Tennessee is wise to consider other opportunities to make sure that students’ needs are ultimately met.”

Asked if that approach is contrary to the ideal of local education control, she invited Lee to answer. The governor then pivoted to education savings accounts, his five-year, $125 million proposal to let some families use taxpayer money to pay tuition at private elementary and secondary schools.

“This is about children and not about systems,” the governor said. “The goal here is to provide children in all systems that have these low-performing schools — five of which exist in this state — an opportunity to access a higher-quality education, which will ultimately strengthen the public schools in those districts as well.”

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.

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.

Protesters stand across from LEAD Cameron, a Nashville charter school visited Monday by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. (Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat)

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.”