Tennessee’s new Senate education leader is pro-voucher attorney

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A Memphis-area lawmaker who is an attorney for a pro-voucher group was named Wednesday to lead the legislature’s powerful Senate committee over education policy.

Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey will replace Dolores Gresham, the longtime GOP chairwoman who recently retired from the legislature.

He was picked by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who announced Senate committee assignments for the 112th Tennessee General Assembly.

Memphis Republican Mark White, another voucher supporter, is expected to remain as chairman of the House Education Committee when Speaker Cameron Sexton announces his chamber’s assignments later Wednesday or Thursday.


Both committees are the gatekeepers of hundreds of bills filed annually to affect Tennessee students, educators, and schools. Vouchers, which provide families with state funding to help pay for private school tuition, have been at the center of bitter legislative fights in Tennessee in recent years. Last spring, a judge overturned a 2019 voucher law and halted the state’s program before it could launch.

Kelsey is an attorney for the Liberty Justice Center, a Chicago-based group supporting the state’s appeals to reverse the voucher ruling. The state Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the case after a lower appeals court sided with the judge in September.

Next week, Kelsey will chair the Senate panel that will consider major legislation from Gov. Bill Lee during a special session on pandemic-related challenges to the state’s education system. On the agenda are teacher pay, school funding, literacy, testing, and programs to catch students up.

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“Unfortunately there has been significant learning loss as a result of this pandemic,” Kelsey said Tuesday. “I support our governor’s efforts to shine a light on the education of our children.”

Gresham chaired the Senate panel for 12 years and staunchly supported policies like vouchers to give parents more education choices for their children.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Kelsey praised the state’s direction on education under Gresham’s leadership and talked about his own background for the job.

“Personally, the main reason I ran for office 16 years ago was to improve the education system in Tennessee. My wife and my mom are both former teachers and have taught me the importance of a good education for success in life,” said Kelsey, who has served on the Senate education panel since 2011.

Kelsey declined to comment when asked about a 2019 news report that a grand jury was investigating campaign transactions related to his failed bid for Congress in 2016.

His nine-member committee will include only one Democrat, Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis. She opposes vouchers and has called for targeted investments in public education to help the state’s most vulnerable students.

Below are new committee assignments:

Senate Education Committee

  • Brain Kelsey, R-Germantown, chairman
  • Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, first vice chairman
  • Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, second vice chairman
  • Mike Bell, R-Riceville
  • Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City
  • Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin
  • Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald
  • Bill Powers, R-Clarksville
  • Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro
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Editor’s note: This story will be updated after House committee assignments are released.

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