National education reform lobby reloads for 2014 legislative session

After a string of defeats at the Tennessee General Assembly last year, out-of-state education reform groups have reloaded as they look for wins that proved elusive even in a Republican-controlled legislature thought to be receptive to their policies, writes Chas Sisk.

StudentsFirst and Tennessee Federation for Children both spent large amounts on political contributions through their PACs in 2012 and large amounts on lobbying efforts in 2013. Still bills creating a voucher system in Tennessee, a statewide charter school authorizer and a new “parent trigger” for launching charter schools failed.

After big dollars failed to yield victories, both groups used the off-season to regroup and fund new grass-roots efforts. StudentsFirst Tennessee went from virtually a one-person staff to adding new field coordinators — one in Middle Tennessee, the other in Shelby County — while tapping a new state outreach director. StudentsFirst is heading into the next session with a team of eight registered lobbyists, including Rhee herself.

The Tennessee Federation for Children teamed with the conservative Beacon Center of Tennessee in November to launch a campaign dubbed School Choice Now to connect parents and private school leaders who support vouchers to state lawmakers. It has five lobbyists registered in Tennessee.

“I think the prospects are better this year,” Brent Easley, state director of StudentsFirst Tennessee, said of its bill. He also assured the Rhee-led organization would pick up where it left off in raising funds for like-minded state candidates in what will be an election year. “There will be a renewed focus on that.”

…Other education lobbying groups based outside Tennessee that have made this state a focus include Stand for Children and K12 Inc., the for-profit company that operates the Tennessee Virtual Academy, a computer-based virtual school.

The charter school authorizer’s biggest advocate is the Tennessee Charter School Center — the new name for the recently combined Tennessee Charter Schools Association and Tennessee Charter School Incubator.

Backers of vouchers and the charter authorizer change are pitted against a lobbying group called the Coalition of Large School Systems, which the state’s four largest schools districts, including Nashville, pay $37,500 each for representation at the Capitol.

The Knoxville News Sentinel, in a recent news series, calculated that the state’s three government-funded lobbyist groups — Tennessee School Systems for Equity and the Tennessee School Boards Association in addition to CLASS — are outspent by out-of-state groups in lobbying by a $2-to-$1 margin.