By Steve Hunley
Reviving Gov. Lee’s ESSA Plan?
In May of this year, a Nashville judge ruled Governor Bill Lee’s educational savings account legislation, approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, unconstitutional. A collective “hurrah” went up from teachers’ unions, but the celebration might have been somewhat premature.
Last week, the U. S. Supreme Court has handed down a decision that may well affect education spending for decades to come, not to mention reviving Governor Lee’s ESSA legislation. The decision is a big win for those parents who want to direct the education of their children. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion in the 5-4 decision. Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue involved three families in the Big Sky State who sought protection for a parent’s constitutional right to determine their child’s education. It also expands the options for parents in choosing schools for their children. The high court ruled that excluding religious schools from state approved student aid programs is unconstitutional. White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany said it was a victory for parents and students, while referring to how the decision removed the ability of state governments to hide behind rules promulgated “motivated by insidious bias against Catholics.”
At the heart of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue was the issue of whether or not the Montana Supreme Court was in violation of the Constitution of the United States when it overturned a program which provided tax-credit scholarships that allowed students to attend private schools, including religious schools.
The Montana Supreme Court held that the program, approved by the state legislature, violated the “No-Aid” provision of the law which prevents the legislature from appropriating taxpayer dollars for students to attend religious schools.
These provisions preventing public money to go to religious schools are known as “Blaine Amendments.” I checked with our resident historian at The Knoxville Focus, Ray Hill, who told me the author was James G. Blaine of Maine, a Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, U. S. senator, Secretary of State and presidential candidate. The Blaine amendments are rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry. Some 37 states in our country have a variation of Blaine amendments on the law books.
The Supreme Court ruled the “no aid provision” upheld by the Montana court discriminated against families, students and religious schools. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority of the high court, cited the Montana decision was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.
As might be expected, teachers’ unions bemoaned the Supreme Court decision. Randi Weingarten wailed the ruling is a “seismic shock that threatens both education and religious liberty.” Weingarten said the decision means private schools may take money from public schools.
Attorney General William Barr said the decision by the Supreme Court means “a state may no longer disqualify religious schools from scholarships or other programs ‘solely because they are religious’.”
The fight will certainly be carried over into this year’s elections. The ESSA legislation was sponsored in the Tennessee House of Representatives by veteran legislator Bill Dunn, who has always been a vocal proponent of school choice for students and parents. The approval of the ESSA legislation prompted a challenge inside the Republican primary against Dunn by Knox County Board of Education member Patti Bounds, who sides with the teachers’ unions on the issue. Dunn had intended to retire in any event and County Commissioner Michele Carringer entered the race for the GOP nomination. The Democrats have a candidate in Elizabeth Rowland, daughter of the late attorney and state legislator Mike Rowland. Carringer likely will receive support, financial and otherwise, from those who back school choice and Governor Bill Lee. Carringer should also receive support from the extensive network of supporters built up by Bill Dunn through decades of service in the legislature. Bounds can expect support from teachers, if they choose to vote inside the Republican primary and already some are grumbling they would prefer to vote inside the Democratic primaries. The fight between Carringer and Bounds should go down to the wire. It very well may be Patti Bounds and Elizabeth Rowland both oppose the ESSA legislation and the recent decision of the Supreme Court.
There is always at least one big surprise in most every election. For instance, last week Congressman Scott Tipton of Colorado who lost to Lauren Boebert, a gun-toting bar owner. Apparently, nobody saw Tipton’s loss coming. Boebert is reminiscent of Tea Party candidates running against GOP incumbents just a few years ago.
There are some hotly contested races here in Knox County on the August primary ballots. I have already referenced the fight between Michele Carringer and Patti Bounds inside the Republican primary for the GOP nomination to serve the 16th District in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Nobody can forecast how any election will turn out this summer. Voting in the age of the COVID-19 virus is, like so many things now, completely new. Republicans will choose between Bill Hagerty and Dr. Manny Sethi for the U. S. Senate. Democrats will pick between James Mackler and several less well known candidates. Mackler had started out as a candidate for the Senate in the last election cycle, but withdrew when former governor Phil Bredesen decided he was going to run. Rene Hoyos is running again for Congress from the 2nd Congressional District to face Congressman Tim Burchett in the fall. Not that it matters much, I think there is even a primary fight for the Democratic nomination to lose to Burchett in the general election. Hoyos sure has tried to get as much mileage out of losing with around 34% of the vote as any candidate in the country.
Former mayoral candidate Eddie Mannis is competing for the GOP nomination to succeed retiring state Representative Martin Daniel. Gina Oster, who lost a bid for the Knox County Board of Education some years ago, is also running to face Democrat Virginia Couch. Mannis is the target of an outside expenditure campaign, which accuses him of not being a Republican, while Oster polishes her GOP bonafides. Expect that race to heat up considerably as we approach August.
State Representative Rick Staples is being challenged by former County Commissioner Sam McKenzie and newcomer Matthew Park. According to those following the campaign for the Democratic nomination in the 15th House District, Matthew Park is working hard and going door-to-door. Just how voters actually feel about candidates showing up on their doorsteps asking for votes in the age of the coronavirus is likely anybody’s guess and may depend entirely upon the voter. McKenzie, the husband of City Councilman and Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie, seems to be convinced of his inevitability as the Democratic nominee. Neither McKenzie is going to set the house on fire as a whiz-bang campaigner. Staples will likely run on his record and has been able to get some things accomplished in Nashville as a member of the minority party, something few other Democrats can boast about. McKenzie, who did little for his district while on the county commission, seems content to ride out the primary election on the basis of his name recognition inside the district and hope for the best. Parts of South Knoxville are in the 15th House District and the areas where students live will likely be scarcely populated with the university virtually shut down. That won’t help Matthew Park any, as he is campaigning as an unabashed ultra-liberal, which would be popular with young white liberals who supported David Hayes and Amelia Parker for city council. That kind of loud liberal politics hasn’t been as popular in the Black community as it has with white liberals. One thing every observer seems to agree upon is the voter turnout in the 15th District will be low. It is possible the race for the Democratic nomination for the 15th House District will be decided by a handful of votes. Let’s hope folks surprise us.
Time will tell just what election surprise there will be here in Knox County on Election Night.
I Stand Corrected…
Evidently in last week’s column, I inverted the numbers as to the costs of the recent graduation ceremonies in Knox County. The graduations this year cost a little more than $100,000, while the graduation ceremonies at Thompson-Boling Arena cost around $25,000. The graduation exercises this year, at a time when everything is more difficult, were a complete success. Students, parents, faculty and staff were delighted by the simplicity and as most graduates were in their home communities. I am glad to offer a correction and, in my opinion, it was well worth it.