Republican Lee calls for school vouchers across Tennessee

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee said he supports spending more public money on private school tuition around Tennessee, and that restrictions should be placed on lobbying by government entities that oppose school vouchers.

Debate over the introduction of school vouchers has roiled the Tennessee General Assembly for years, and 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 school choice legislation in a Facebook interview Thursday with the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a conservative advocacy group that supports 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.

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.


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