Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is hiring three more leaders with ties to groups that lobby for school vouchers and charter schools.

  • Gillum Ferguson, recently communications director for the American Federation for Children in Tennessee, is Lee’s interim press secretary.
  • Charlie Bufalino, director of policy and strategy for TennesseeCAN, will become the Department of Education’s chief liaison to state lawmakers on legislation and policy.
  • Chelsea Crawford, who has served as TennesseeCAN’s media contact, will lead communications for the education department.

The hires are expected to further expand the influence of organizations advocating for hot-button education policies such as vouchers and charter schools. 

The Republican governor, who has championed new laws creating a charter commission and an education savings account program similar to school vouchers, already has two people with similar backgrounds in his inner circle. Tony Niknejad, former Tennessee director for the American Federation for Children, is the governor’s policy director. Brent Easley, a former state leader for TennesseeCAN, is his legislative director. Both had Lee’s ear last year on voucher policies that critics brand as “privatization” because they shift taxpayer money from public schools to subsidize private school tuition. 

A spokesman for Lee said Wednesday that the people joining his administration are passionate about making Tennessee a national leader in education.

“The governor is committed to pursuing any option that helps Tennessee’s students achieve their highest potential, whether it be strengthening our traditional public schools, where the vast majority of them will learn, or through some form of choice for those in failing schools,” said Chris Walker, director of communications.

In his first year in office, Lee also made significant investments in public schools, including $71 million in the budget to increase teacher pay and $30 million for school safety grants. He recently told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he’s most proud of his $25 million initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for students who are soon to start college or career.

Ferguson started Tuesday in the governor’s office. He is a former spokesman for the Tennessee Republican Party and one-time assistant to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who led the American Federation for Children before joining President Donald Trump’s cabinet in 2017.

He steps in for Laine Arnold, who will become the governor’s communications director when she returns from maternity leave.

Bufalino has been named the education department’s senior director of legislative affairs and policy, at an annual salary of $125,000. 

He previously worked with the Rocketship charter management organization and later provided bill analysis for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education before overseeing policy strategies for TennesseeCAN. That organization is part of the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now, an advocacy and lobbying group whose agenda includes expanding education choices through policies such as vouchers and charters.

Bufalino will assume most of the duties of Elizabeth Fiveash, former assistant commissioner for legislative affairs, who recently joined the list of employees who have resigned from the education department under the leadership of Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Director of Policy Aleah Guthrie also tendered her resignation last month.

READ: Employee turnover, discontent high in education department under Schwinn

Crawford will become the education department’s third communications chief since Schwinn became commissioner almost a year ago. 

But unlike Crawford’s predecessors, hers will be a cabinet-level position under the title of assistant commissioner for strategic communications and engagement, at an annual salary of $125,000.

Crawford has served as the media contact for TennesseeCAN through her outgoing job as vice president of client services for CRISP Communications, a Brentwood-based strategic communications firm whose education-related client list has included the Memphis Education Fund, the Hyde Family Foundation, LEAD Public Schools, SCORE, the Nashville Now education coalition, and the parent advocacy group Memphis Lift.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the governor’s office.