Health care and criminal justice reform are among the top priorities of the new Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, mostly aligning with other Republican leaders in the state.
But when it comes to education, Sexton said in a speech to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Thursday, he will focus on early childhood literacy rates instead of school choice.
“Every year that we wait is another year that students are falling,” Sexton said about early literacy. “Let me be very clear. This isn’t falling through the cracks, because that would mean we weren’t aware that we are having a problem, and we are very aware that we have a problem.”
Sexton talked about the importance of making sure high quality teachers can be hired and retain to teach students in kindergarten to third grade.
But the Speaker failed to include school choice in his priorities, something that’s been a high priority for many Republicans. Gov. Bill Lee even ran on that platform in 2018, and his landmark legislation last year was the passage of a school voucher program in Davidson and Shelby Counties. Sexton had opposed that initiative.
Sexton told reporters Thursday he is not sure how big of an an issue school choice will be during his first legislative session as speaker, which starts next week. Sexton acknowledged that there’s already legislation to reverse the school voucher law, but reiterated his focus on literacy.
“We still have a reading proficiency problem in the state and we need to better address that,” he said.
When asked if school choice was going to be a top priority for him, Sexton seemed to signal it was not.
“The top priority for me is making sure that every student inside of Tennessee has the same opportunity for success in education,” Sexton said. “And that starts with public schools and that’s what we are going to try to focus on.”
With his comments, Sexton seems to be choosing to position himself as someone willing to disagree with the governor. Last month, he also pushed back on the governor’s decision to allow refugee resettlement in the state.
The governor’s office declined to comment on Sexton’s remarks.