House Speaker Glen Casada angered many Tennesseans in January when he handed an education subcommittee chairmanship to Rep. David “Coach” Byrd, dogged for months by allegations of sexual misconduct in the 1980s when he was a high school girls basketball coach.
On Thursday, the Republican speaker surprised people again by announcing that Byrd will step down abruptly as leader of the House education administration subcommittee.
The announcement came one day after the Waynesboro Republican voted against an education voucher bill, one of new Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s signature initiatives and possibly the most contentious proposal before lawmakers this year.
Casada’s chief of staff said there was no connection between Byrd’s removal as chairman and his vote on Wednesday in the House Education Committee.
“That is an absolute lie,” said Cade Cauthren when questioned about the timing of Casada’s announcement.
But outnumbered Democrats in Tennessee’s General Assembly — who have been calling for Byrd’s ouster since the allegations first surfaced last spring — quickly seized on the development and called Casada’s decision political hypocrisy. They noted that protesters and several key leaders, including former House Speaker Beth Harwell, who handed over the gavel to Casada after losing to Lee in the Republican gubernatorial primary, had urged Byrd to leave office.
“Months and months of sexual assault victims coming up here pleading didn’t make the case. But within 24 hours after voting against that voucher bill, he’s no longer a chairman. I think it speaks for itself,” said Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville.
Casada said he asked Byrd to step down after discussions with other House members. “Rep. Byrd agrees that this is the best path forward in ensuring the House of Representatives can focus on the issues that truly matter to all Tennesseans,” Casada said in a statement.
The embattled lawmaker quickly exited the Capitol building in Nashville following Casada’s announcement. Reached later by phone, Byrd said he has no plans to resign his legislative seat and declined further comment.
Byrd was a longtime coach at Wayne County High School and served as the school’s principal for eight years. He was elected state representative in 2014 and re-elected last year without Republican opposition, even after two women came forward to say he touched them inappropriately three decades ago when he was their coach. A third woman said he tried to touch her.
Byrd has not denied those allegations and has never been charged. Meanwhile, Casada has repeatedly defended him and at one point compared the scrutiny of Byrd’s conduct to that of Brett Kavanaugh last year after allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior from decades earlier surfaced against the U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
On Wednesday, Byrd voted with Democrats and a few Republicans against the governor’s proposal to start an education savings account program in Tennessee. The measure would initially give up to 5,000 families a debit card loaded with taxpayer money to spend on private schools or other private education services. It’s opposed by teachers, superintendents, and school boards across the state.
The bill advanced 14-9 with one abstention — but required some arm-twisting from Casada and the administration as lobbyists from both sides worked the legislation up until the last minute.
Byrd’s vote was being closely watched. Although Byrd had opposed vouchers in previous years, Casada had come to his defense for months on the sexual misconduct allegations and has long supported voucher legislation.
During a two-hour discussion on the bill, Byrd spoke up three times with pointed questions — starting with one asking how many state tests that recipients of education savings accounts would have to take, compared with the number required of public school students.
“So it’s less than half of what we have to do as far as public education,” he finally said after quizzing Ben Torres, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association.
Byrd then asked about requirements and penalties faced by teachers in public versus private schools. Torres said he did not know of any state oversight that holds private educators accountable, while public school teachers can lose tenure for receiving low ratings for two straight years.
Byrd later suggested that the governor’s legislation was missing a bigger point on parent engagement, especially for low-performing students whose parents are not able to be more involved in their child’s education.
“Is this bill going to address those parents, or those students that don’t have that parent that’s involved? I guarantee you it will not address those,” he said.
Byrd continued: “The elephant in the room is not our education system; the elephant in the room is getting our parents involved, and this does nothing to get our parents involved.”
Asked for comment about Byrd’s dismissal as a legislative leader, the governor — who recently met with one of Byrd’s accusers — sided with the House speaker.
“Gov. Lee agrees with Speaker Casada and the House leadership’s decision today in removing Rep. Byrd from his subcommittee chairmanship,” a spokeswoman said.
The voucher bill heads next week to the House’s Government Operations Committee and is expected to be taken up by the Senate Education Committee in the next two weeks.