Tuesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – Leahy was joined on the newsmaker line by Tennessee State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, to discuss school choice and Governor Bill Lee’s executive order on school safety.
Leahy: Welcome to our newsmaker line right now, our good friend, State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. Good morning, Jack. How are you today?
Johnson: Good morning, Michael, good to be with you.
Leahy: Well, it’s always great to chat with you. Your district is, in essence, all of Williamson County. Is that right, or what are the boundaries?
Johnson: It is, for now, Michael. That’s right. But due to redistricting and the growth down here, I did have to give up about 43,000 people, the district will, for the next four years. And so the city of Spring Hill has now been drawn into Maury County with my good friend, Senator Joey Hensley.
Leahy: Well, how about that? So you represent all of Williamson County except for Spring Hill.
Johnson: That’s correct.
Leahy: I know you’ve been tracking what’s going on with education and school issues. Here are a couple of issues I want to chat with you about.
We’ll get to the governor’s executive order on school safety, but talk a little bit about the Tennessee Supreme Court decision on school choice if you would.
Johnson: I sure will, Michael, and thank you for giving me the opportunity. This is a big, big deal for Tennessee. I know all eyes have been on Washington and the United States Supreme Court awaiting the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade.
And trust me, I am anxiously awaiting that decision and hope, in fact, that that is the case. But right here in our own backyard, we had a very important ruling from the Supreme Court back about a month ago, and more importantly, based on a motion to reconsider, the Supreme Court refused that motion.
And what effectively the Supreme Court did is allow our school choice program that we passed about three years ago in Tennessee to go into effect. This is a really big deal, Michael. You had me on the program.
You talked a lot about it. We’ve been trying for years in Tennessee to get a school choice program passed. We were finally able to do so in 2019. Governor Bill Lee brought forward a bill. I was proud to sponsor that bill, and get it passed, that’s going to finally inject some school choice into the state of Tennessee. Not unexpectedly, the court system enjoined that. We were sued by the cities of Memphis and Nashville, where this program would take place.
The program wasn’t joined. It had to make its way through the court system. The Supreme Court did overturn the lower court system, and we’re going to be able to implement the school choice program this year. And that’s going to be critical for some kids that are trapped in failing schools in Memphis and Nashville.
Leahy: So let’s talk about how that will actually work this year, this calendar year. So coming up, I guess in August, it applies only in certain schools in Davidson County and in Shelby County, I believe. Tell us exactly how it’s going to work.
Johnson: Sure. We have a system in Tennessee that designates what a “failing school” is. And there are metrics that determine that.
And basically common sense, I think, would tell you when a child is trapped in a failing school, the parents of that child will be able to take the state-allocated portion of that school funding, which will be somewhere around $7,500 for that child.
Take that in the form of an education savings account – some people refer to it as a voucher – and be able to take that money and use it to pay for private school tuition. And it is limited to those counties.
The bulk of our failing schools are in Nashville and Memphis. I think about 97 percent of the schools that are designated as failing are in those two counties, Shelby and Davidson County. So those parents will now have an alternative to put their kids into a private school should they choose to do so.
Leahy: How many parents do you anticipate will be signing up in these failing schools? This is not all schools in Davidson County, all K-12 public schools, or not all K-12 public schools in Shelby County, but I think it’s a good number. How many parents do you think will take advantage of this program starting in August?
Johnson: That’s a great question, and we hope that a lot will; we want to get this program fully implemented as quickly as possible, get as many kids out of those failing schools and into performing schools as we can, as quickly as possible.
What we can do is we can look at other states, and typically there is a transition period that you got to do some outreach, some education in the community, and we’re prepared to do that.
The State Department of Education will be doing that in these communities to make parents aware of the program and that they can take advantage of it. I’m hoping that that number is in the thousands of families in the first year.
I think word will spread pretty quickly, and that’s what we’ve seen in other states like Florida, that have implemented certain programs.
And by the way, Michael, it’s not just the kids that end up transitioning into these private schools, but when you inject that degree of competition into the educational system, guess what happens to the public schools? They start to perform better as well. So it’s a rising tide to the lift-off of …
Leahy: Got another topic to discuss in the area of education. So, Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order recently on school safety. This comes at the same time as the terrible shootings at Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old gunman was able to enter the school and killed 19 innocent young students there, as well as two teachers. What is involved in the governor’s executive order on school safety?
Johnson: Thanks, Michael. First of all, most importantly, it draws attention to every community in Tennessee because we have schools in every community to make sure that they’re aware that we have invested over $100 million in school safety programs in recent years, including appropriating over $20 million a year to work towards the ultimate goal of having a school resource officer in every single school.
As you know, Michael, this is a multifaceted program, and the Left will immediately have a knee-jerk reaction to want to start immediately talking about gun control and imposing additional laws on law-abiding citizens and their ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
I don’t see that that’s where the problem stems from. I think it is a community. It’s a breakdown in the family. It’s a mental illness issue.
It’s a matter of strengthening what we say – the term we use is hardening the school facilities to make sure that they are more secure. So the General Assembly appropriated an enormous amount of money, and much of that money is being deployed and being used.
But what the executive order does – and I’m very supportive of what Governor Lee is doing. Every school in Tennessee is different. Every community is different.
You can’t wave a magic wand and have a one-size-fits-all solution in terms of securing these schools. So what the executive order does is encourage local law enforcement, school boards, families, and teachers to come together, look at their schools, work with the State Department of Homeland Security to identify how to best secure these schools, and make sure that those resources that we have appropriated in the general assembly are available and being put to good use.
Listen to the interview:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 am to The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.