Bill would strip Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee of some Board of Education appointments

Gov. Bill Lee, flanked by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (left) and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (right), speaks to reporters during a Tennessee Capitol news conference Oct. 20, 2021, following a special legislative session on Ford Motor Co. incentives for new plant in Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Sher/Times Free Press)

NASHVILLE - A GOP-led legislative effort to put lawmakers in operational control of Tennessee's state Board of Education with six of the panel's nine voting-member appointments is moving in the state House despite opposition from Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who now makes all the appointments.

House Bill 1838, sponsored by Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, won approval Wednesday in the House Education Administration Committee on a 9-6 vote.

The legislation has a powerful supporter: Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville.

"I'm going to vote for it when it comes to the floor," Sexton told reporters Thursday after the House adjourned for the week. "I don't think there's anything wrong with having the legislature [have] a little bit of oversight on that state board as well as having some appointments to it."

Sexton said, "I haven't had a discussion with the administration. I think they've talked to other members on the committee."

The governor later told reporters he opposes the Board of Education overhaul measure because "the process we have is a good one - confirmation by the General Assembly of appointments to that [board]."

He said the bill is still going through the House and Senate committee process, "and we'll see where it goes. But that's the process for any piece of legislation."

The Board of Education has 11 members, nine of them voting members appointed by the governor and two ex-officio nonvoting members appointed by the governor. Cepicky's bill, sponsored in the upper chamber by Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, would give the House and Senate speakers three appointments each going forward, leaving the governor with three appointments.

Voting members come from each of the state's nine congressional districts. While the General Assembly doesn't select the members, it does confirm a governor's appointments.

The Board of Education has rule-making and policy-setting powers as well as final school curriculum approval for 147 local school districts and nearly 1 million public school students.

Textbooks and instructional material have been a flashpoint for conservative lawmakers who have railed in recent years over what they perceive as political correctness. They object to certain LGBTQ themes and certain approaches to teaching history.

Cepicky argued that two panels under the Board of Education's umbrella - the Textbook Commission and Standards Review - are appointed by both the governor and the House and Senate speakers with each getting three picks. There's no reason why that shouldn't be the case for the Board of Education, Cepicky said.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, has yet to weigh in on the measure, which some view as a challenge to Lee's authority from his own party.

"He is reviewing it," McNally spokesperson Adam Kleinheider stated in a text to the Times Free Press.

One of the latest cultural battlegrounds is critical race theory, a decades-old academic concept taught in law schools holding that race is a social construct and racism isn't restricted to individual bias or prejudice but embedded in law and policies. Although the theory is not taught in K-12 schools, Republicans last year passed a bill banning certain related concepts.

Despite arguments Wednesday by Lee legislative director Brent Easley, House Education Committee members approved Cepicky's bill.

"I'm here to share with you this afternoon the governor is opposed to this legislation," Easley told committee members. "There are generally a few boxes that we look at when we're analyzing education policy with the governor. Does this solve a problem, does this promote student achievement and reward teacher excellence? Does this make things better for education in the state?

"This bill does none of those," Easley said, adding lawmakers have an impact because they already have the authority to confirm or reject gubernatorial nominees. And, Easley said, the legislature has authority to approve or reject rules promulgated by the board through the House and Senate Government Operations Committee.

"This is a process that's been working well for years," Easley said. "This bill does not have value."

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said that legislators have plenty of influence on the process.

"We vote on the budget," Hakeem said.

He noted lawmakers confirm or reject the governor's nominees for the positions of education commissioner, Board of Education, Textbook Commission and Standards Review panel.

Cepicky countered that the governor has control not only of the state Department of Education, headed by Commissioner Penny Schwinn, whose actions and policies have drawn criticisms from both Republicans and Democrats for different reasons, but also the Board of Education and the state's Textbook Commission and related panels as well.

It amounts to "zero checks and balances," said Cepicky, adding sometimes he agrees with the board and administration's policies and sometimes not.

"I was taken aback by the phone calls the governor was making" against the bill, Cepicky said. "This isn't about Gov. Lee. ... This is about balance."

Asked if there was a precipitating event that motivated him to bring the bill, Cepicky said a "little bit" had to do with the textbook waiver granting process that lawmakers stripped from Schwinn last year.

"And a lot of that had to do with some steering the department did at the local level and assuming the Textbook Commission would grant approval to the Wit & Wisdom [curriculum] that the commissioner gave 33 waivers for."

"Wit & Wisdom," an English language arts curriculum, came under fire in 2021 in Williamson County by some parents, The Tennessean reported at the time. It was created by Great Minds, a Washington D.C.-based, nonprofit publisher of curriculum and instructional materials. The company creates curricula in various subjects for pre-K through 12th-grade education.

It was part of the publisher's "Common Core" curricula, which has been attacked by conservatives. The state repealed its use of Common Core, which had support from then-President Barack Obama, in 2015. Some critics charge Wit & Wisdom isn't age-appropriate, while others charge it teaches critical race theory concepts.

Cepicky said "the fabric of our government - balance, checks and balances, separation of powers - is key to the success of our country and our state. And all this bill does is just make sure we maintain the separation of power from probably one of the most important boards in the state. Those two boards [Textbook and Standards] operate objectively, but then everything goes before the state board for approval, and they're all appointed by one person," the governor.

Asked if he expects the bill to pass, Cepicky paused before saying, "Well, it's been a battle as you can see."

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.