Tennessee’s new governor named charter school champion by national group

Gov. Bill Lee has been in office for less than six months, but he’s already been named a champion of the charter school movement by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Lee — who pushed through new funding and legislation for the state’s growing charter sector — was the only Tennessean and sole governor among 17 local, state, and federal officials named Tuesday to the organization’s 2019 class of “Champions for Charters.”

The list serves as a who’s who of elected government leaders “who are making a difference for students by supporting high-quality charter schools,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the alliance.

On the campaign trail, Lee frequently praised the public education received by a charter school student whom he mentored as a businessman in Williamson County, south of Nashville.

Soon after taking office, Lee made K-12 education a centerpiece of his first legislative package, with eight of 14 initiatives focused on schools and two of his most controversial ones aimed at giving parents more education choices for their children. The legislature subsequently approved Lee’s proposals to create a state commission to oversee Tennessee charters and to double funding to help operators pay for costly buildings and campuses.

Lee also hired Penny Schwinn, who founded a charter school in Sacramento, California, as his education commissioner. And he has included charters among his frequent school visits.

Gov. Bill Lee tours a Nashville charter school with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is also a charter school advocate and philanthropist. (Courtesy of state of Tennessee)

“I believe highly accountable public charter schools are a great model for expanding choice without sacrificing quality, and I’ve seen firsthand how they can dramatically impact the life and trajectory of a student,” Lee said during first State of the State address.

The Republican governor is the third Tennessean singled out by the alliance since the nonprofit group began in 2006 to honor advocates of publicly funded, independently operated schools. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, another Republican, made the group’s second class of honorees, and Democrat Karl Dean — who lost to Lee in last fall’s general election — was named in 2013 while serving as mayor of Nashville.

Tennessee opened the door to charter schools under a 2002 state law and currently has 112 charters serving 38,000 students, mostly in Memphis and Nashville.