Tennessee governor hires another ex-lawmaker who championed school vouchers

Rep. John DeBerry, a Democrat, has represented House District 90 in Memphis since 1995.
John DeBerry represented Memphis in the Tennessee legislature for 25 years as a Democrat but was not reelected in November when running as an independent. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has hired DeBerry as a senior adviser. (Grace Tatter/Chalkbeat)

Gov. Bill Lee on Monday named John DeBerry, a passionate school voucher advocate who recently was ousted from the Tennessee legislature and the Democratic Party, to his cabinet.

The former Memphis lawmaker, who lost his bid this month to return as a state representative, will serve on the Republican governor’s executive leadership team beginning on Tuesday, according to a news release from Lee’s office.

“John has fought to protect life, provide better education options for Tennessee students, and to reform our criminal justice system and I’m honored to have his counsel within the Cabinet,” Lee said in a statement.

A spokesman for the governor said DeBerry will advise Lee on education and criminal justice reform, among other issues. He will have an office at the State Capitol in Nashville, and his annual salary will be $165,000.

DeBerry is the second former lawmaker and voucher proponent tapped this month to join Lee’s administration ahead of the new legislative session in January.

The governor hired former Rep. Bill Dunn as a special adviser on education, just days after his term ended. The longtime Knoxville Republican lawmaker helped steer Lee’s controversial school voucher plan through the legislature. He did not seek reelection after 26 years in office. 

Both men served on the House Education Committee and were vocal supporters of proposals aimed at giving parents more education choices for their children — an issue on which the governor campaigned. Their hiring suggests that Lee is not backing down on school choice, even though the 2019 voucher law he championed was overturned in May for applying only to Memphis and Nashville, where local government bodies did not support the plan. Last week, the state appealed the ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

A minister, DeBerry had represented Memphis’ 90th House district as a Democrat since 1995 until the state party removed him from the primary ballot this spring because of his GOP-aligned voting record. In November, he sought reelection as an independent and was soundly defeated by Democrat Torrey Harris, a human resources professional for Shelby County government.

DeBerry was the only member of his party who voted for the governor’s education savings account plan that barely passed out of the House. Soon after, he received a “champion of choice” award from the pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children for his support of policies that give taxpayer money to parents who want to send their children to private schools. 

“It’s been an honor to serve my constituents for the last 26 years,” DeBerry said in a statement about his new job. “I am proud of the work accomplished throughout my time with the Tennessee General Assembly and I look forward to serving Tennesseans in this statewide role.”

DeBerry is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and the University of Memphis. He preaches at the Coleman Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis.

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