Tennessee’s new Senate education leader is pro-voucher attorney

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, has sponsored several voucher bills in the Tennessee General Assembly.

A Memphis-area lawmaker who is an attorney for a pro-voucher group was named Wednesday to lead the Tennessee legislature’s powerful Senate committee over education policy.

Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey will replace Dolores Gresham, the longtime GOP chairwoman who recently retired from the legislature. 

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called Kelsey the “obvious choice” because of his commitment to education reform during his 10 years on the committee.

Two other Republican lawmakers from West Tennessee were named House education leaders as the newly elected legislature convened this week. Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who previously chaired the committee, will lead a panel on education administration, which includes K-12 and higher education. Rep. Deborah Moody, who previously led the subcommittee on curriculum, testing, and innovation, will chair a new education and instruction panel. Speaker Cameron Sexton split the committee in two because of the large number of education bills filed every year.

Committees are the gatekeepers of hundreds of proposals each year that, if approved, can affect Tennessee students, educators, and schools. 

Vouchers, which provide families with state funding to help pay for private school tuition, have been at the center of bitter legislative fights in Tennessee in recent years. Last spring, a judge overturned a 2019 voucher law and halted the state’s program before it could launch. It’s uncertain if there’s appetite to take up new voucher legislation this year during the pandemic.

Kelsey is an attorney for the Liberty Justice Center, a Chicago-based group supporting the state’s appeals to reverse the voucher ruling. The state Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the case after a lower appeals court sided with the judge in September.

Next week, Kelsey will chair the Senate panel that will consider major legislation from Gov. Bill Lee during a special session on pandemic-related challenges to the state’s education system. On the agenda are teacher pay, school funding, literacy, testing, and programs to catch students up.

“Unfortunately there has been significant learning loss as a result of this pandemic,” Kelsey said Tuesday. “I support our governor’s efforts to shine a light on the education of our children.”

Gresham chaired the Senate panel for 12 years and staunchly supported policies like vouchers to give parents more education choices for their children.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Kelsey praised the state’s direction on education under Gresham’s leadership and talked about his own background for the job.

“Personally, the main reason I ran for office 16 years ago was to improve the education system in Tennessee. My wife and my mom are both former teachers and have taught me the importance of a good education for success in life,” he said.

Kelsey declined to comment when asked about a 2019 news report that a grand jury was investigating campaign transactions related to his failed bid for Congress in 2016.

His nine-member committee will include only one Democrat, Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis. Akbari, who is also the only person of color named to the committee, opposes vouchers and has called for targeted investments in public education to help the state’s most vulnerable students. 

Below are new committee assignments. (* denotes new members)

Senate Education Committee

  • Brain Kelsey, R-Germantown, chairman
  • Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, first vice chairman
  • Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, second vice chairman
  • Mike Bell, R-Riceville
  • Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City
  • Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin
  • Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald
  • Bill Powers, R-Clarksville*
  • Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro*

House K-12 Education Committee

  • Mark White, R-Memphis, chairman
  • Chris Hurt, R-Halls, vice chairman
  • Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro
  • Michele Carringer, R-Knoxville*
  • Glen Casada, R-Franklin*
  • Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka
  • John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville
  • Mark Cochran, R-Englewood
  • Tandy Darby, R-Greenfield*
  • John Gillespie, R-Memphis*
  • Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga
  • Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville
  • Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville*
  • Harold Love, D-Nashville
  • Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis
  • John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge

Education & Instruction Committee

  • Deborah Moody, R-Covington, chairman
  • Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, vice chairman
  • Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka
  • Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville
  • Bruce Griffey, R-Paris*
  • Torrey Harris, D-Memphis*
  • Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville
  • Tim Hicks, R-Gray*
  • Eddie Mannis, R-Knoxville*
  • Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville*
  • Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis
  • John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge
  • Iris Rudder, R-Winchester
  • Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna*
  • Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill*

Speaker Sexton also named three House education subcommittees: K-12, chaired by Rep. Kirk Haston; higher education, chaired by Rep. Justin Lafferty, and education & instruction, chaired by Rep. Scott Cepicky.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include House committee assignments.

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