State’s government education lobby outspent by national groups

Reports filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission indicate the leading in-state, government-funded lobbying groups are outspent by more than $2 to $1 by out-of-state organizations in trying to influence the state Legislature’s action on education reforms.

And that may not tell the full spending story in the quest to influence legislation, since Tennessee affiliates of national groups such as StudentsFirst, American Federation for Children and Stand for Children operate political action committees donating to Tennessee candidates. Tennessee’s leading government-related education groups do not.

If the PAC spending is lumped together with lobbyist spending, the national groups’ spending advantage rises to about $6 to $1.

Collectively, PACs for the three national organizations spent more than $1.2 million in Tennessee last year, disclosure reports show, with most going to benefit candidates for the state Legislature and school board candidates.

StudentsFirst, using funds sent to Tennessee from its headquarters in Sacramento, Calif., led the way with $525,000 in PAC spending, followed by Tennessee Federation for Children with $450,000 and Stand for Children in Tennessee with about $220,000, according to Registry of Election Finance records.

In the most recent lobbying expenditure reports filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission, the three national groups combined with K12 Inc., a national virtual schools company collectively spent between $420,000 and $830,000 from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013.

Since then, the Federation for Children and Beacon Center of Tennessee have jointly launched a large “grassroots” lobbying campaign called “School Choice Now,” hoping to persuade citizens to contact their legislators and urge passage of school voucher legislation in the 2014 session.

Lobbying expenditure reports, filed every six months, do not give an exact figure, instead reporting only within a “range” of spending.

For the three leading government-related education lobbies — uniformly opposed to vouchers, for one issue, while the national groups are uniformly supportive — the lobbyist spending range is $185,000 to $355,000.

“We’re small potatoes compared to what they’re spending,” says Indya Kincannon, a Knox County Schools board member and past president of the Coalition of Large School Systems, known as CLASS. The state’s four largest school systems — Knox, Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby counties — provide $150,000 a year from their local funds to hire a Nashville lobbying firm.

The national groups’ PAC spending is a concern, she said, but “if push comes to shove, we believe most legislators will look to the people in their districts… more than people who don’t always represent Tennesseans.”

Besides CLASS, leading lobbying spenders in taxpayer-funded organizations are the Tennessee School Systems for Equity, which has 64 smaller school systems as members, and the Tennessee School Boards Association.

Other lobbying organizations also focus on education issues.

The Tennessee Education Association, funded by teachers paying dues, joins the government groups on some issues, such as opposing vouchers, though there may be differences in other areas. TEA reported spending between $75,000 and $150,000 on its lobbying activities.

On the other hand, the Tennessee Charter Schools Association reported lobbying expenditures of between $100,000 and $200,000. The TCSA is typically at odds with TEA and the government-funded groups over charter schools legislation.