State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, has one word to describe the state’s proposed school voucher system: rip-off.
The vouchers, as proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam, would allow lower-income students from poorly performing schools to go to any school of their choice.
Favors, the vice chairman of the House Democratic caucus, represents a largely African-American district. Her constituents might benefit.
But that’s not how Favors sees it. Rather, she believes the proposal will take badly needed money from the public schools to fund private education.
“They need the money in the schools they attend,” Favors said of children in her district. “Why are we tapping into what limited resources we have? It’s a rip-off.”
Favors, a nurse and teacher, is long-accustomed to fighting uphill battles. Her 1960 high school class mounted sit-ins in Chattanooga to protest segregation.
“We didn’t have a black university in Chattanooga, so we did it,” she said.
Raised in a Republican household, Favors recalls her mother pinning an “I Like Ike” button on her as a child.
But Favors’ views – and her mother’s – began shifting in 1960 with the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy.
“I was fascinated with J.F.K.,” she said, believing he and the Democratic Party were more strongly supporting civil rights than Republicans.
So, Favors said, she went to work for the Kennedy campaign, knocking on doors and getting out the vote.
State Rep. JoAnne Favors
Represents: District 28, the southern portion of Hamilton County including Chattanooga and the communities of Harrison and Ridgeside.
First served in the General Assembly: 2005
Personal: Rep. Favors is a widow with four children and six grandchildren. She earned her master’s degree in adult health and administration from Andrews University.
Contact: 615-741-2702, firstname.lastname@example.org
This early enthusiasm for politics did not spark an immediate political ambition, however.
“Running for elected office was something that was never on my radar screen,” in her early years, Favors said.
Instead, she married, had four children and earned nursing degrees (an RN, BSN, MS in administration and adult health, and an ASN, associate of science in nursing).
It was only after becoming active in the Tennessee Nurses Association, and serving as that group’s liaison with legislators, that Favors’ interest in politics was rekindled.
In 1998, a seat opened up on the Hamilton County Commission, she said, “and I was encouraged to run.”
She won as one of nine candidates.
Then, in 2004, Favors said, she was encouraged to run for a legislative House seat and won again.
“The people that were active in politics didn’t know me, but the other people did,” she said. “I found there were enough people that were interested in health care to win.”
Health care has been, and remains, one of Favors’ top concerns. She said she is deeply troubled by the efforts of some of her legislative colleagues to stop an expansion of Medicaid to provide health care to more lower-income Tennesseans under Obamacare.
“We are a state with so many sick people,” Favors said. “We need to take a different approach. I hope we can expand it.”
Favors has little patience with lawmakers who fear the federal government will not make good on its promise to fund most of the expansion costs in the years ahead.
“They’ve been paying the majority of the costs since 1965,” she said. “Why would they stop now?”
Moreover, she believes the state’s future share of the expansion cost is money well spent.
“If you’re not going to spend money on health care,” she asks, “where else would you spend it?”
Lawmakers seem to have little trouble finding the money to lure new companies to the state, Favors said, and these companies have learned to pit states against one another to get the biggest incentives.
“When are the states going to come together and say ‘This is the cap.’ We won’t pay any more than this,” she said.
As it is, Favors said, companies get millions of dollars in incentives from states, then, when it suits them, “they can move away and shut down.”
Despite her strong beliefs, Favors said, she realizes Democrats are a distinct minority in the House. She believes her best approach is to “go slowly, to provide information and try to change the thought processes.
“Sometimes you have to hold on and wait,” she said. “Sometimes you look at what you can stop, not what you can pass.”