NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee is voicing support for more school choice in Tennessee, an issue that has divided lawmakers within his own party.
Debate over the introduction of vouchers to provide parents with public money to pay for private school tuition has roiled the Tennessee General Assembly in recent years. Even limited proposals have been defeated by a bipartisan coalition of urban and rural lawmakers who fear they would siphon money away from public schools.
Lee spoke in favor of greater school options in a Facebook interview Thursday with the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a conservative advocacy group that has been a vocal supporter of school vouchers.
“Parents need choices and they need options,” said Lee. “So I would be a strong advocate for school choice in every area of the state.”
Lee said his own children were homeschooled and attended both private and public schools.
“Those decisions are best made at home,” said Lee, the chairman of a family-owned construction and home services company. It’s his first political race.
Republican lawmakers have lifted caps on the number of charters schools allowed to operate in Tennessee and passed a law to give the State Board of Education to overrule local school boards if they decline charter applications.
“Every parent in this state should have multiple, high quality education options available for their children,” Lee said in an emailed statement Friday. “That means expanded school choice options like charters schools, but it also means strongly supporting traditional public schools. Vouchers have potential, but it is just one tool of many in our toolbox.”
Justin Owen, Beacon Center’s president, asked Lee whether he would seek to “rein in” lobbying against school voucher bills by taxpayer-funded entities, which in the past have included city and county governments; public school districts and administrators; and the state department of education.
“Every time we go up to the Legislature to push for this, we hit taxpayer-funded lobbyists,” Owen said.
Lee responded that more people would be opposed to the issue if they were aware of it.
“If taxpayers understood that their dollars were being used to lobby and entertain — we all know about receptions that entertain legislators by lobbyists, and it really should be stopped,” he said.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in 2013 sponsored a bill seeking to create school voucher pilot program, but pulled the plug on the measure after advocates tried to go beyond the limited approach.
Haslam’s bill would have limited vouchers to 5,000 students in the first year, and growing the program to 20,000 by 2016. The governor backed away from vouchers after that measure failed, and subsequent efforts by other Republicans have fallen short.
Haslam can’t run again next year because of term limits. Other candidates for the GOP nomination include state Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin, House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd.
Democratic candidates include former Nashville Mayor Karl dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley.
The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 2, 2018.