When U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Gov. Bill Lee led a roundtable discussion on school choice at Tennessee’s Capitol, the 30 or so people at the table were unlikely to challenge the points of view of their powerful hosts.

Missing at Monday’s closed-door meeting were any Tennesseans who have spoken against proposals that would give taxpayer money to families to pay for private education services.

Among those present were Republican leaders of the Tennessee legislature, including three lawmakers who are shepherding Lee’s bill to create a new type of voucher program and two others who are carrying the Republican governor’s controversial charter school proposal. Representatives of four pro-voucher groups were also in the room, as was Lee Barfield, a Nashville attorney who is a major funder of the pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and has long worked behind the scenes to bring vouchers to Tennessee.

Conspicuously absent were new state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and anyone with the Tennessee State Board of Education.

A spokeswoman said Schwinn was scheduled to meet that day with leaders of testing company Questar to prepare for Tennessee’s annual TNReady assessment that begins on April 15. But Schwinn did offer this statement: “The nation is taking a look at how Tennessee supports every student, in every desk, every day and I’m grateful for the attention given to the Volunteer State.”

State Board Executive Director Sara Morrison was not invited to the roundtable meeting, according to her spokeswoman.

Also missing were Democratic legislative leaders, who have been among the most outspoken critics of Lee’s two school choice initiatives.

The purpose of the roundtable — according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Education — was to discuss President Donald Trump’s $5 billion federal tax credit that DeVos pitched in February to fund scholarships to private schools and other educational programs. That proposal, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, has struggled to gain traction in Congress.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat
U.S. education chief Betsy DeVos speaks Monday with sixth-graders at LEAD Cameron, a charter school in Nashville.

DeVos also praised Lee’s two signature legislative initiatives that the governor says will provide Tennessee families with more education choices for their children. One would create an education savings account program to fund private education services beginning in 2021 for up to 5,000 students in five cities. The other would form a new state commission with the power to overrule local school boards that deny charter school applications, as well as to run those schools when local districts decline.

“School choice and education freedom is on the march,” DeVos told reporters later after visiting a Nashville charter school with the governor.

Here’s the list of roundtable participants provided Tuesday by the U.S. education department:

  • U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
  • Gov. Bill Lee
  • Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge
  • House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin
  • Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville
  • Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis
  • Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville
  • Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin
  • Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown
  • Gillum Ferguson, American Federation for Children
  • Shaka Mitchell, American Federation for Children
  • Val Armstrong, American Water
  • Lee Barfield, Bass Berry & Sims
  • Justin Owen, Beacon Center of Tennessee
  • Doug Jahner, Bellevue Harpeth Chamber of Commerce
  • Rebecca Hammel, Diocese of Nashville
  • Rick Musacchio, Diocese of Nashville
  • Fred Decosimo, Elliott Davis Accounting
  • Marlon King, superintendent, Fayette County Public Schools
  • Doug Daugherty, Hamilton Flourishing
  • Ted Alling, Lamp Post Group
  • Hugh Maclellan, Maclellan Foundation
  • Mark Gill, Rodgers Capital
  • Hugh Morrow, Ruby Falls
  • Joe Scarlett, Scarlett Family Foundation
  • Tara Scarlett, Scarlett Family Foundation
  • Victor Evans, Tennessee CAN
  • Bradley Jackson, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce
  • Maya Bugg, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Adam Lister, Tennesseans for Student Success
  • Taylor Hall, Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education
  • David Mansouri, Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education
  • Gaugh family
  • Lopez family