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Former Rep. Bill Dunn, a passionate voucher advocate, hired by Tennessee governor as education adviser

Rep. Bill Dunn prepares to present the governor’s education savings account bill to a House education subcommittee in 2019.
Rep. Bill Dunn prepares to present Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account bill to a House education subcommittee in 2019. Now out of office, Dunn has been hired by the governor as a special adviser in the state education department.
Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat

Former Rep. Bill Dunn, who helped steer Gov. Bill Lee’s controversial school voucher plan through the legislature, is joining Lee’s administration as a special adviser on education, just days after his term ended.

The Knoxville Republican began working Monday in the state education department as a senior adviser to Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

A news release from the governor said Dunn will focus on “key priority areas and engagement strategies” but gave no details. A department spokeswoman said his annual salary is $98,000.

In an interview, Dunn said one of his first assignments will be working with his former colleagues in the legislature to pass a comprehensive early literacy plan. “That’s one of the issues that got cut short last session during COVID, and this gives me an opportunity to complete unfinished business,” he told Chalkbeat.

His hiring puts a well-respected leader who is knowledgeable about both education and the legislature in the state education department during a time when its commissioner is under fire from many lawmakers and school superintendents.

Dunn was the longest-serving GOP member of the House of Representatives and announced last year that he would not seek reelection after 26 years in office. Most recently serving as the No. 2 leader in the House of Representatives, he ended his last term on Election Day.

“Bill is a man of impeccable integrity, and his counsel will be critical to our success as we navigate one of the most challenging school years in our state’s history,” Lee said in a statement.

In a separate statement, Schwinn said she was excited to have Dunn on her team.

“As a statesman, he dedicated his life to serving Tennesseans and has been respected across the state and across the aisle for his work,” she said.

This year, numerous lawmakers have criticized Schwinn for rolling out initiatives and taking administrative shortcuts without ample legislative input, review, or approval. Last month, the chairs of the House and Senate education committees called for an investigation into the department’s management of millions of dollars earmarked for coronavirus relief, as well as the state’s school voucher program for students with disabilities.

Dunn has been a steady member of the House Education Committee and an outspoken advocate for giving parents more education options for their children.

In 2019, he carried the governor’s education savings account plan to give eligible families in Memphis and Nashville taxpayer money to help send their children to private schools. It passed out of the House of Representatives by just two votes — the first time a major voucher bill had advanced out of that chamber. The voucher law has since been struck down by the courts, and Lee’s administration is considering appealing to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“It is an honor to be able to continue serving Tennesseans in a statewide role and help build upon the great work being done by the Tennessee Department of Education under the leadership of Commissioner Penny Schwinn,” Dunn said in a statement.

Speaking with Chalkbeat, Dunn called the job a “unique opportunity” that he had not sought — but agreed to when the governor asked. His role, he said, will be to foster communication between the department and the legislature as Tennessee works to support students and improve education.

“What happened in the past is past,” he said of friction between Schwinn and some legislators. “We’ve had an election and some new members are coming aboard. Hopefully everyone will say, ‘Kids come first, and let’s get to work.’”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Dunn’s salary.

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