Live from Music Row Wednesday 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. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee State Representative John Ragan (R-33 District) and chairman of the Government Operations Committee to comment upon the State of the State Address and mechanics of the Basic Education Program.
Leahy: We welcome to our newsmaker line, good friend, State Representative John Ragan, who is the chairman of the very powerful Government Operations Committee in the House of Representatives from Oak Ridge. Welcome, Representative Ragan.
Ragan: Thank you. You, sir. It’s good to be on, and I appreciate you having me on.
Leahy: We always like having you on. And you’ve not been in studio yet, but come on in-studio sometime, because that gives us a little bit more time to get to know you and get to know the details that are important to you.
You were at the State of the State address on Monday night. Had quite a bit of pageantry and theater. What’s that like to be there at the State of the State address?
Ragan: Actually, the very first one I was attending was quite impressive, I’ll be honest with you. This is like my 12th one, I think, or the 11th one.
It’s more an exercise now in listening to what the governor is putting out and making sure that I understand it so that it fits with the programs we’re going to be pushing forward. A little less impressive to me now let’s just say that. (Leahy laughs)
Leahy: Now. You’re focused on the policy because a lot of key bills have to go through the committee you chair, the Government Operations Committee. Was there any in Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State Address Monday night, policy proposal that surprised you, or was it pretty much what you thought would be coming down the pike?
Ragan: No, I didn’t get any real surprises out of it, to be honest with you. I was pleased in the sense that there was a little different emphasis in some areas than I was expecting. In a sense, you might call that a surprise.
But it wasn’t complete from the standpoint of I knew that something like that would be mentioned. The governor’s approach, frankly, I just had a conversation with the governor in his office yesterday, and he and I have a great deal in common in terms of our passions for state government. Now we have our differences too. (Chuckles)
Leahy: People with different views have to work together, don’t they?
Ragan: Exactly. That’s the way the government gets things done otherwise you have complete gridlock.
Leahy: Exactly. It’s a pretty big budget. $52 billion with a b. That’s a lot of money. I noticed one thing on it, and we’ll get to the elements that were in it. One thing that caught my attention, the state of Tennessee is one of the best fiscally managed states in the country, and our all-star panelist is in studio, Crom Carmichael and he has always said that’s a tribute to the work of the Tennessee General Assembly.
I agree with him on that. We’ve got this huge budget surplus right now. I did not see any proposal there to cut taxes, either sales taxes or gas taxes. Does that catch your attention as well? And what are your thoughts on that?
Ragan: You are correct. I didn’t see any proposals there either to cut taxes. Now having said that, I and several of my colleagues are carrying bills to do just that. I am aware of and I am supporting, as a matter of fact, one of my colleagues with a bill to completely eliminate the professional privilege tax.
We started doing that session before last. We got about half of them, and we’re going to try to go after the other half this year. And I think we’re going to be successful on that. I personally have a bill to eliminate taxes on precious metals that are purchased for collectible or shall we say IRA purposes.
Leahy: Like gold, silver, and that sort of thing?
Ragan: Right now, the state does not charge a tax for someone to buy a gold coin and put that in their retirement account or their hedge fund or whatever, the rainy day issue. But we do charge them a tax for just buying a gold bar.
Leahy: I did not know that.
Ragan: Yes. My bill would eliminate that. It’s going to be the same for everybody if this bill passes. So, yes, the governor didn’t mention cutting taxes, but those of us here in the legislature are aware of that, and are, in fact, tackling that issue.
As far as the fuel tax, which really I think a more correct term for that, the Department of Transportation is a user fee because the issue right now is predicated on the fact that we keep the roads up from that. That’s fenced off and not used in our general fund. It’s completely devoted to the roads.
Leahy: And we were talking with State Representative Jerry Sexton earlier today about that, and although it does appear at least anecdotally that we’ve seen a lot of road work done since that gas tax was passed even before.
This is very confusing to me, and I wonder if you could help kind of eliminate a bit of that confusion. As part of the governor’s plan, he’s proposed a couple of things, an updated version of what’s called the Basic Education Program and a $750 million increase in K-12 education funding.
Tell our listeners what the Basic Education Program currently is and what your understanding of what the governor is proposing to do to change that.
Ragan: The Basic Education Program is a very complicated formula by which we allocate money to school districts. And it’s complicated in part, in no small part, as a matter of fact, because courts have been involved with it, stirring the pot with bits and pieces here and there that we must adhere to.
That said, it’s an attempt to get state money because our state Constitution requires us to afford an education to our citizens, and it’s an attempt to get money to the local education authorities, otherwise known as school boards, to be able to pay for educating those students.
Now the reality is that the state money is only a part of what goes to those schools because while they cannot decrease it, they are free to add to it.
Ragan: Yes. However, that complicates that BEP issue and the reason the governor specifically talked about adding things for teachers salaries, as we have been in the past and I have said this myself because it’s based on that formula we’re talking about saying we’re giving the teachers a three percent raise.
That was a true statement based on the teachers that we fund out of that BEP. But districts that have hired extra teachers get that money. And they say, well, it’s not fair just to give the teachers that are in this formula the raise and not give the others.
They have the authority at the local level to as long as they’re staying within that accounting budget item, the number that covers teachers salaries, teachers benefits, number of teachers, et cetera, there’s a number of things in that same accounting code. As long as they stay within that, they can spread that money around as they choose by state law.
So when we say we’re giving the teachers a pay raise, we really mean it. But it has to be within the confines of that formula. The local education authority can, in fact, redistribute that within the accounting codes as they see fit.
Leahy: Now let me ask you this question. I’m looking at the performance of our K-12 public education here in Tennessee, and it looks to me like reading, writing, and arithmetic, proficiency at every level has declined precipitously across the board for about five years. That’s what it looks like to me. If that’s the case, do we have the right system? Is this system working or is it failing?
Ragan: Ok, the straightforward answer to your question, is it’s failing, but not totally. When I was first elected back in 2010, I came down here with one of my campaign positions to improve our education system.
At that time, Tennessee was ranked 49th out of 50 in our states. We clawed our way up to 35th, which is not a position to brag about, but the movement certainly is. And at that point, we began to plateau, if that’s the right word, and we weren’t going backward.
But with the advent of COVID, you are correct. We declined precipitously. In relation to other states, that data is still out there to be looked at. But I sit on every education committee in the House except one.
And I will tell you, education is a passion of mine and has been since I’ve been down here. I am really, totally disappointed in that number that you talked about there. And we won’t call the numbers.
But the work that has been done on this has pointed very squarely to the third-grade reading competencies. That issue is something we have tackled.
We passed a bill during our first extraordinary session last year when we got that federal money. The first thing we did was dump it into the literacy program. We are devoting state money to that because if a child doesn’t learn to read by the end of the third grade on grade level, their academic career is hampered forevermore after that.
Leahy: Representative Ragan, Crom Carmichael has a question for you. He’s in studio with us.
Carmichael: Chairman, very quick question. In Davidson County the results in the charter schools, especially in the lower grades, is much, much better than in the government-run schools. What do you think the prospects are for increasing charter schools?
Ragan: We have put a path in place to do that. Just so we’re clear, a charter school and state school board or local education authority, they’re both public schools.
Carmichael: I know.
Ragan: But it’s in the governance.
Ragan: A charter school is governed by an entity that is not beholden to the election process. They’re contracted and the local education authority has input as to whether or not they get approved or not.
So a charter school is just a different way of running the school. What you pointed out with your question is that charter schools seem to have a better system of governance in terms of impacting student performance.
And at the state level, again, we do not want to interfere with the local control of that, but at the state level we want to encourage them to start focusing more and more on student outcomes.
Leahy: We are joined now on our newsmaker line by Karol Markowicz. Among other things, she’s a columnist for The New York Post.
She was born in the Soviet Union and raised in Brooklyn. Good morning, Karol. Thanks for joining us.
Markowicz: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Leahy: My first question for you, Karol: Which was worse? The Soviet Union in the 1980s or New York City in 2021?
Markowicz:(Chuckles) Well, I came to the United States when I was little. I was under two, so I don’t quite remember the Soviet Union, but I grew up very much aware of how lucky I was to be here every single day and how different my life could have gone. I’ll still choose Brooklyn every time.
Leahy: Well, we’re delighted that you are here and your writing is just –let me just say – it’s fabulous.
Markowicz: Thank you.
Leahy: And you have a couple of pieces. The most recent one: critical race theory is part of a woke agenda. Parents should fight it.
Don’t let the left keep brainwashing our kids to fight their political wars. And I really like this recent one. Don’t let Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, whitewash or roll in school closures. It sounds to me like you’re not a big fan of the teachers’ unions.
Markowicz:(Chuckles) Well, it’s funny, because, until this year, I don’t think I’ve written that much about teachers’ unions.
And I don’t think that most parents really care that much about teachers’ unions and their role in our schools. But after a year of many schools staying close, needlessly, while areas where teachers unions weren’t powerful managed to open their schools.
It was just very jarring how much power these unions had, how weak our politicians were in the face of their power, and how much they were able to do to our kids.
I think so many eyes are open now. And it was obviously unfortunate that kids didn’t get to go to school in so many places this last year.
But I think there are so many motivated parents now who realize what’s going on in a way that they didn’t before. And that’s really the one sort of benefit of what happened this year.
Carmichael: How do Black and Hispanic children in particular fair in schools in Brooklyn and in the New York City area?
Leahy: By the way, that’s Crom Carmichael, who’s also in studio with us. He’s a regular all-star panelist.
Markowicz: Hi. We have some really great charter schools in New York. But for the last eight years, while Mayor de Blasio has been the mayor, he’s very far left, there’s been an all-out war on charter schools.
And there have been no new charter schools allowed. And the teachers’ unions again have managed to squelch any opposition to them because they have so much power with these politicians.
So in general, our public schools are bad. Even the good ones are not that good. And we have a situation where when somebody wants school choice – when they want to get out of the system – when they want to find a charter school, they’re largely unable to at this point.
Hopefully, the next mayor will be better. There’s some hope on the horizon that if Eric Adams wins or Curtis Sliwa, either one, they’re much more pro-charter than Mayor de Blasio has been. Things might be looking up.
Carmichael: Let me ask you a question because I think that standards truly matter. In the last year, the standards of police officers have been under tremendous scrutiny. And if a police officer has bad standards, they are singled out, thrown out of the police force, and if appropriate, convicted of a crime.
Carmichael: Why don’t we apply those same standards to the people who run our teachers’ unions and are teachers, to those teachers who do a pathetic job of teaching our children? They’re just as professional as police officers.
Markowicz: Right. I think the worst part of that is just like good police officers get blamed for bad police officer behavior, I’ve known a lot of really great teachers who are incapable of doing what they need to do with students because of the control from the top, and because of the bad teachers who sort of make it harder for everybody else. For example, this year, there were a lot of teachers who wanted to be in person and who understood that the kids needed them, who understood that Zooming with kindergarteners – I have a kindergartener – is not a thing that works. There were a lot of teachers who wanted to be in person.
But because their union enforced these ridiculous policies, and because politicians listened to them, they kept the schools closed.
They kept the kids at home and the good teachers really got pushed to the side. And I think that that’s a really big problem, too.
These teachers don’t want to stay in the system that rewards bad teachers or spends a year not having kids in school. We push the best people out with the system that we have.
Carmichael: In a charter school in Brooklyn or in the New York area, give an example if you would, because charter schools operate independently. In other words, they’re not unionized.
They don’t report to some charter school board of education. They operate independently. Give an example of the number of students that a charter school might have and the number of administrators and the number of teachers.
Markowicz: So it’s different, obviously, than public schools. But I don’t have the numbers in front of me. But charter schools operate on a very different system where they don’t have anywhere near as many administrators.
They don’t pay nearly as many people as public schools do. But to talk about one part of the numbers with charter schools is charter schools in general in New York, for example. I know that they’re different around the country, but they do far better on state tests than public schools.
And so you have a situation where especially for Black and Brown students, when they’re in public schools, people just sort of throw up their hands and say, these public schools are bad. There’s nothing we can do.
With the same students taken into charter schools, they are much better. They really succeed. And so you have the situation where it is not the students. It’s absolutely the school system.
And like I said earlier, even the good schools, I think, are not that good. Even the schools that are considered sort of success stories are sort of weak.
Leahy: Weak successes at best I think would be the most generous way to describe them. Let me ask you this. You see that both of the major unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, last week, they both came out and said, we are going to teach critical race theory, and we don’t care if the laws say we can’t do that. What do you make of that?
Markowicz: Well, every minute spent on this ridiculousness is a minute not spent teaching math and science and social studies and the rest of it.
And every dollar spent on these insane consultants who come in to tell us that White people are the oppressors and Black people are the oppressed, and the other races sort of don’t really factor in that much, is a dollar not spent on kids’ education.
And like I said earlier, I think parents really have their eyes open to this where this is an actual huge story where a few years ago, I think this would have been just kind of a blip.
They know what critical race theory is now. They know that they don’t want it in their kids’ school. We’re seeing these school board meetings all across the country where parents are fighting back.
And it’s not politicians that are leading the way. It is actual parents. So again, I have some hope that the bright spot of a post-COVID era is that parents know what’s happening in their kids’ schools now in a way that they didn’t before, and that they’ll be fighting.
Leahy: On that note of optimism, we’ll close our first interview with Karol Markowicz. Karol, a columnist in New York Post. Thank you. Very refreshing, very enlightening. Please come back and join us again.
Leahy: We are joined now by Gabrielle Clark who is a Nevada mom with quite a story to tell. Good morning, Gabrielle.
Clark: Good morning, Michael. How are you this morning?
Leahy: Well, I’m delighted to have you on, although I am sorry to hear the circumstances in which this arose. Tell our audience what happened with your son and with the school that he attends and what the resolution of that has been.
Clark: Thank you for having me on. Unfortunately, this is happening all over the country. At the beginning of this year, he’s going to Democracy Prep at the campus here in Las Vegas, Nevada, the charter school. And at the beginning of this year, he was instructed to do an assignment where he had to list all of his identities and then attach signifiers to them of oppressed or oppressor. And I did not think that was okay. I think that is compelled speech. And we took action.
Leahy: Let’s get this clear. You’re Black, right?
Clark: I am biracial. My mother is Black and my father is white.
Leahy: And your son?
Clark: He’s white. My first husband was Black. So I have some Black children. My second husband was white. So I have some white children. And the idea that my white children are somehow oppressors over my Black children and myself is completely ludicrous.
Leahy: It’s crazy!
Clark: We will not stand for it.
Leahy: So he was in his class. What does the teacher say? Did he refuse to do the assignment?
Clark: He refused to do the assignment. And when I got involved, he had already had some interaction in the classroom. Virtual learning, of course, at the time. And it was not good. It was a complete violation of his civil rights. And he refused. And by the time I found out, I stood behind my son.
Leahy: So he already refused before you knew about the assignment, right?
Clark: Yes, he did. He knew that that was wrong.
Leahy: He’s got a good head on his shoulder’s it sounds like.
Clark: He does, indeed.
Leahy: What has happened subsequently? This happened was in February?
Clark: No, that happened in September.
Leahy: In September. So walk us through the process then. What happened after that?
Clark: So that happened in September. I followed the chain of command to get relief to opt out of this assignment. I opted out of this class. And we were not granted release so we took legal action. We filed our lawsuit in December. And last month, the school conceded on all of our demands, and my son will be graduating.
Leahy: Congratulations to you for standing up. Did your legal fees hit the roof on this?
Clark: My legal fees did hit the roof. Part of the reason why nobody fights and nobody stands up to this kind of tyranny is that the legal expense is great. And we are still collecting donations on Givesendgo.com/supporttheclarks. And through no left turn in education at Noleftturn.us. You can look at the lawsuit and look at all of the media.
Leahy: If people want to make a contribution to help cover your legal fees, where exactly do they go again?
Leahy: And by the way, you had a good lawyer. Obviously, since you won and the school conceded, the legal fees must be approaching $100,000. I would guess.
Clark: They are well beyond $200,000.
Leahy: Wow! Wow!
Clark: It has been a very intense process. But that is what these kinds of programs depend on. They depend on people not being allowed or not being able to fight back. And their inability to fight back is what has been allowing this type of indoctrination to continue in the country.
Leahy: $200,000. plus in legal fees just so your son doesn’t have to confess to being white and being an oppressor. You’re kidding me?
Clark: I am not kidding you. Unfortunately, these are the proponents of critical race theory and this kind of indoctrination. It is fueled by people’s inability to fight back.
Leahy: That makes an awful lot of sense. Tell us about your son. He’s graduating from high school next month.
Clark: Yes, he will be graduating.
Leahy: And what is his future look like?
Clark: William is an aspiring EDM producer, so he will be continuing his education in sound engineering.
Leahy: Great. Is there a college for that, or do you go to a specialized program for it?
Clark: We’re still looking at colleges right now. Unfortunately, part of this situation was that we were at a standstill on our effectiveness in attaining scholarship and that sort of thing. There are long-term effects of having to fight this.
Leahy: Sure. I don’t know if, you know, here in Nashville, we have a great music business college called Belmont. Have you heard of Belmont University?
Clark: I have not.
Leahy: Just check it out. Belmont University. Nashville is the Center of the music industry, as you know, and they have a terrific program there, and lots of kids from around the country go there. I would encourage you to look at Belmont University and come on down to Nashville because we’re a nice place here.
Clark: We will definitely take that into consideration. All of our college application options are centered around the best program for William.
Leahy: Southern Cal has a pretty good one or UCLA, I would guess. How long have you lived in Las Vegas, Gabrielle?
Clark: We’ve lived in Las Vegas since 2007. William has been going to Democracy Prep, this particular school was the Andre Agassi flagship school prior to being Democracy Prep. So he’s been going to the school itself for six years.
Leahy: Other than this incident, what has that experience been like for him?
Clark: Well, up until this year, we had a positive experience here with this particular school. I did notice that there were some things that I wasn’t comfortable with. But we had always been able to communicate our concerns and they’d be heard. But on this particular issue, it fell on deaf ears.
Leahy: Do you think that this is just the fact that you had a good experience for a while and then this last year with its critical race theory craziness kind of coming on like a tsunami across the country? Do you think there’s a general change in schools around the country that are forcing more and more kids to bend their knee to critical race theory?
Clark: That is absolutely what has gone on. And for anyone out there, you need to stand up. You need to stand up for your children and reach out. I reached out to Elana Fishbein at No Left Turn in Education, and she found lawyers for me, and we were able to press forward.
If anyone out there is having a problem, you can go to Noleftturn.us. Or you can go to Facebook for their National chapter. Or you can go to a state chapter. We have chapters in about 20 states, roughly. And if there is not one in your chapter, then get with Dr. Fishbein and you can start a chapter in your state.
Leahy: Also, Gabrielle, have you had a chance to talk with the folks that America First Legal? They just set up this legal team that helps fight against critical race theory. This is the former Trump administration guy Steve Miller who is putting that together.
Clark: I have not.
Leahy: Well, that would be a good group for you to talk to because they want to get critical race theory stories as well. Gabrielle Clark, you are a hero. You are brave. And thank you for standing up. And we really appreciate having you on and very best of luck to your son William, as well.
Clark: Thank you so much for having me.
Leahy: Great to have you on. Gabrielle Clark, a brave mom fighting critical race theory in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Leahy: In studio with us, Metro Nashville Public School Board member Fran Bush. Fran, during the break, we were talking about charter schools. And I want to talk overall about the philosophy, your philosophy with regards to charter schools. Generally speaking, do you favor the idea of having charter schools or do you oppose it?
Bush: So my position has always been and this is always one of those very controversial topics when it comes to public versus charter. And before I ran, I always believed in parents having a choice. It’s all about choice. We understand that our public schools, it takes away our funding because we have to fund charter schools before our public schools.
Leahy: Now, Crom would say, the difference is a government-run public school and a charter, independent-run public school. You’d say they’re both public schools.
Bush: Right. So they’re still our students. So let’s make it very clear these students are still public school students. They have just made a choice, or parents have made a choice to put them in a charter school for whatever reason, they felt their student will be academically served best.
Leahy: And a charter school gets a charter from the Metro National Public School Board or the local school board.
Leahy: That allows them to operate their own public school according to their guidelines, but guided by the Metro Public Schools. But they have their own management team and their own style and their own approach. We have one of the most well-known, I guess, is Nashville Classical, which is a K8. It’s been around for many years. I think, about 10 years maybe.
Bush: A long time.
Leahy: And from everything I can tell, very successful. Polls show that there is huge support among minority groups, Black voters, and Hispanic voters for charter schools and choice. So generally saying you support the concept of choice?
Bush: Yes, I do, because every model is not for every student. So it doesn’t mean that we don’t care and love our community public schools. That’s not what we’re saying. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that there are options and there should always be choices because every student is different. They learn differently.
They have different needs. They need different support. And sometimes the public school or that particular school, a parent feels that that is not what they want for their student, and they find some other option. If it’s in a charter school, they can give them the support they definitely need for their students.
Leahy: So that parent, if there is a charter school that they want to attend, they don’t have to pay anything extra. It’s free, if you will, except for direct payments. They can follow that. Here in Nashville and in Tennessee, the way it works is the charter school brings an application to Metro Nashville Public School.
Leahy: And you can vote up or down. And if they vote down in recent years now there’s a special commission they can appeal it to.
Bush: Absolutely. So if a charter school comes before the board, they will submit their application. Once they submit the application and go through an interview process, and then they have to meet certain criteria. If it’s academic, if it’s the finances, location, whatever the case may be, they have to meet pretty much and have an eight star.
Charters are judged a little bit differently? So they have to have a little bit more of a higher standard in order to operate or to get that approval. So they have to meet so many different needs. If it’s English learning students if it’s students with special needs, that kind of thing. So all that is encompassed into this application process.
Now it comes before the board. If the board sees that academically, they still have things that they have to meet they have 30 days to make those corrections or update their application to make sure that it is up to standards coming back before the board making those adjustments for approval.
Leahy: I guess last week there were two charter applications.
Bush: This week.
Leahy: This week?
Leahy: This is breaking news folks. And so it was Nashville Classical, which has been operating a K8 for some time. Did they want to have another K8, or did they want to go with a high school?
Bush: I think it’s more of a K8 in a different location. So I think she was going to start Elementary. I’m sorry. Elementary first element. And then, of course, you add a grade every year.
Leahy: Basically, then you the Metro board consider the application of Nashville Classical for another elementary site. And then was there another application?
Bush: Yes. It was a new one. It’s Ventura and it’s a new never established or new application.
Bush: Startup. Yes.
Leahy: What happened in the discussion and how did the board vote? How did you vote on these two applications?
Bush: So just so everyone can be clear if I deny a charter application the first go-around is because there are some things that needed to be added or adjusted in the application so that it can meet the academic needs of the students. Once that application comes back the next 30 days, nine times out of 10, they make the adjustments. And if parents, once again, if they are supporting the application or the means of the students academically is going to be a success, then my vote is always yes.
Leahy: What was the vote on these two proposals on Tuesday?
Bush: Nashville Classical two, only one voted in favor and the rest we voted again…
Leahy: So it was nine zip against Ventura. And then eight to one against Nashville Classical.
Leahy: So you voted against Ventura Academics, and then you voted against Nashville Classical. But there’s an asterisk. Explain your vote and what happens next?
Bush: So Nashville Classical again, a very great school. No problems with the history. And so we can be clear that once they make a new application to go, the application process is very strenuous. It’s not something that’s easy. It’s something that is really a long process. It’s like a checkmark. You have to checkmark, like, 100 things off the list. And if they don’t have so many different things on that checklist and they did not meet the criteria or partially met that kind of grading. They did not partially meet on the academics.
Leahy: I’m just curious what would have done the shortcoming on the academics if they have, like, a dozen years or so of good academic experience? I think they outperform other schools. What in their application led you to believe that their second school would not meet academic standards if their first school has been well above?
Bush: That’s a good question. I’ve looked at these applications before. This is not the first time this has happened. Nashville Classical is not the only school that we’ve seen this happen to. It’s amazing just what you just spoke about. They did so well. They’re doing so well in their current state. But when they submit another application, it’s like it changes. Something changed in the application that does not match exactly what they’ve been doing.
Which they should be doing the exact same thing. But something in the application that spirals into a different direction of what they’ve always done. And that kind of has been a curiosity for me because I’m thinking it should be the same on consistency. And somehow with these applications, it doesn’t match.
Leahy: So there was their curriculum going to be different. Is that what it was?
Bush: It was like more of the curriculum meeting certain standards with their English learner students, or if it was dealing with students with special needs.
Leahy: So you told them to fix it.
Bush: Just fix it.
Leahy: And they’ll come back in 30 days.
Bush: Come back in 30 days.
Leahy: If they fix it, you’re gonna vote Yes.
Leahy: But what will the vote be then? seven two against it?
Leahy: But then they get to appeal it.
Bush: They can appeal it to the state.
Leahy: And then they’ll probably get it approved.
Listen to the full third hour here:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Leahy: We are joined on the newsmaker line by state Representative Randy Fine of Florida. Good morning Representative Fine.
Fine: Good morning. Happy to be here.
Leahy: We are delighted to have you on here. I’m going to give you some news you may not know. As you know, we own and operate several state-based conservative news sites. And two weeks ago, we launched The Florida Capital Star. Floridacapitalstar.com. Right there, based in Tallahassee. We’ve got a crew of three folks here writing about what you guys are doing in the Florida state Legislature and what Governor DeSantis is doing. We are delighted to have you on here.
Fine: Well, we appreciate you getting the good word out on all the good work we’re doing down here.
Leahy: So your legislative session is about to wind up, I guess tomorrow is that right?
Fine: That’s right. We have a 60-day session by Constitution every year, and tomorrow will be the 60th day.
Leahy: So every time I turn around, you guys are passing legislation that should be viewed as a model by other States. What would you say are the top accomplishments of this session of the Florida state legislature?
Fine: I think number one, we will again pass a balanced budget, which we do every year while adding to our reserves. I like to tell people we do more than balance our budget. We actually put money in savings. That’s always our most important priority. But policy-wise, we’ve passed the most aggressive anti rioting, pro-police legislation in the country to make sure Florida never looks like Portland or Seattle. And we are also close to passing legislation to really hold Big Tech accountable for the way that they manipulate our data and the way that they censor and treat Conservatives.
Leahy: I looked at our website, floridacapitalstar.com, and I can see you had a couple of other bills. The Florida House passed a bill banning vaccine passports.
Fine: We did. We did. The governor feels very strongly that people should not have to prove that they have been vaccinated in order to go into particular businesses. And so that bill passed the Florida House overwhelmingly yesterday.
Leahy: The other thing I’ve been hearing about is that Governor DeSantis has said we’re not going to be teaching critical race theory in Florida. And I’ve also seen that apparently there are some bills out there that would provide bonuses to teachers in the Florida public school system that follow and take advanced training on the Constitution and civics. Where does that bill stand?
Fine: I’m actually the chair of K through 12 appropriations, so I set the budget. We’re very very aggressive on that front. Number one, minimizing the teaching of the hatred of America and that America is bad and everything that we do is bad. And that’s really what critical race theory says. Basically, let’s be critical of America and view everything through a racist lens.
We’re focused on celebrating America. We’ve passed multiple bills this year that focus on increasing civics as well as reminding people about what makes America great through creating new content to show folks portraits in patriotism, and to remind folks about the evil that’s involved in socialism and communism.
Leahy: So is there an incentive program for teachers that get special training on civics and related projects? Is that in the works? Has that been passed or about to be passed or under consideration?
Fine: We haven’t passed anything to provide incentives for it. But we’re doing one thing better. We’re going to require the teaching of this stuff in schools. So you’re not going to get paid extra to do the right thing. We’re going to expect you to do it as a condition of your job.
Leahy: How will that be monitored? Because one of the problems, we interview members of the Tennessee General Assembly all the time, and they have an idea about what’s being taught in the schools and often their idea of what should be taught and what is being taught is very different from what’s actually being taught.
Fine: Well, that’s a great question. So we passed other legislation this session that increases the availability of classroom materials to parents so the parents can see what’s going on. And we have very active parents in our state. But one other thing that we’ve done is that is sort of related to keep the schools honest is we have passed the largest expansion of school choice in the United States this year.
So we’re creating opportunities for all of our Florida families if they so choose to take their child if they’re not happy for any reason out of a government-run school and to put them into a different school.
Leahy: Tell us how that school choice program expansion will work. Here in Tennessee, this is something that we’re very interested in. We have had a few fits and starts in that Arena. And we look to Florida, as many States do, as a model.
Fine: We have hundreds of thousands of students already taking advantage of private school choice here in Florida. We’ve expanded that this year to say any family of four making $100,000 a year or less can get a voucher equivalent to what the state is paying the school to teach your child. You can get a voucher and take that to a private school. That’s what you want to do.
But in addition, we have a very expensive program for families of children with special needs. Whether they can get their money not only to go to a private school but if that child would be better off at home with specialized therapies and other kinds of products and services they can use it for that. So that is for special needs programs and middle-class programs.
Leahy: For a middle-class parent there, what’s that work out to be? About $7,000 a child?
Fine: That’s exactly right. It’s right around $7,000. And it changes from year to year. We’re talking about the income-based scholarship.
Leahy: Right. The income-based scholarship. But any parent down there with $100,000 or less can qualify for those voucher payments. Is that right?
Fine: So to make it simple, you make $99,000 a year. You’re a family of four with two kids in school, you can get $14,000. to send your child to a private school.
Leahy: Wow! And so I’m guessing that there are a lot of parents that are likely to line up to take advantage of that.
Fine: There are. But the fact of the matter is by having this accountability, our public schools and our charter schools have gotten better. So some parents go, well, hey, we appreciate that we have this option. It makes my government-run school have to do a lot better to keep me from leaving. So everybody wins.
Whether you’re going to a private school or whether you’re going to a charter school, which is a public school, or whether you’re going to a government-run public school. That increased competition benefits everybody.
Leahy: So how are teachers in Florida responding to all this? I know the teachers’ unions, particularly up here in Tennessee, are pretty hostile to these kinds of policy changes. What’s the case down in Florida?
Fine: Well, teachers’ unions hate them, but teachers don’t necessarily because whether you’re teaching in a private school or a government-run school or charter school, they is still a job for you. But I don’t do this job for teachers unions. I do this job for children. I do this job for parents. And those folks overwhelmingly like these programs.
But if you are a teacher in a government-run school, Florida has raised our minimum teacher salaries to among the highest in the country at $47,500 which is a pretty good salary for a job where you get 14 weeks a year off.
Leahy: So you are likely to wrap up tomorrow. Do you think you’ll be there until midnight? How long will it take to get all the business done?
Fine: We can’t vote under our Constitution until 12:06 tomorrow on our budget. We have to actually give 72 hours after we print the budget before we vote on it. So I think sometime mid-afternoon. And by the way, I’m in my fifth year in the legislature and this will be the first time in those five years that we actually end on time.
Leahy: Ah. Do you give Governor DeSantis credit for that or the leadership?
Fine: I give everybody credit. I give credit to Governor DeSantis. I give credit to President Wilton Simpson, who’s the President of our Senate, and Speaker Chris Sprowls, my Speaker. I think they’ve all worked really well together to get the job done.
Leahy: So Saturday morning, you’re going to wake up and the session will be over. Is your job as a state representative over, or do you just turn the page to some other sorts of activities?
Fine: Well, it won’t be over, unfortunately, because we have to come back in two weeks to do a special session on casinos in Florida, which really isn’t a basic function of our regular session. But beyond that, I’ll go home, and I’ll start to talk to folks about the work that we did up here. And I’ll also get to know my family again. I’ve hardly seen them for the last two months.
Leahy: So do you stay up in Tallahassee during most of this time or do you go back and forth?
Fine: It’s a Monday to Friday job, and I live a six-hour drive away. So I’m lucky to get home for 24 to 48 hours every weekend. Especially when session gets busier.
Leahy: That’s a big personal sacrifice. What’s the toll on your family life?
Fine: It’s a lot. You get to a point of week six or seven of session where you think of home as more Tallahassee, and then you’re visiting your family. And then it’s sort of like re-entry as people have described it. And I’m not trying to compare this to being in the military, but people describe it as you sort of have been deployed for 60 days and then you go through the reentry process when you get home.
But I’ve now been through it four times, and I’ll get through it again. It takes a big big toll on your family because you’re just gone and it’s very busy when we’re up here.
Leahy: Well, thanks for all the hard work that you’re doing for the folks in Florida State Rep. Randy Fine.
Listen to the full first hour here:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio. Background Photo “Florida Capitol” by DXR. CC BY-SA 4.0.