On education PAC money in Memphis legislative races

Start of a Chalkbeat Tennessee report on campaign financing in Memphis area legislative races:

In Memphis, where efforts to improve schools are helping to reshape the city, at least six candidates running in contested races for the Tennessee House of Representatives are attracting money from groups and individuals with education policy goals.

The candidates, all of whom are running in the Democratic primary election on Thursday, received tens of thousands of dollars from political action committees attached to advocacy organizations including Tennessee Federation for Children and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, according to campaign finance disclosure reports released late last week by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

And one candidate, Tami Sawyer, has attracted the financial support of high-profile individuals including Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Keith Williams, a pastor who testified this year at the state Capitol in favor of school vouchers, is running for the District 85 seat against incumbent Johnnie Turner, a former Memphis teacher who has voted against vouchers.

In District 90, which stretches from Frayser and North Memphis to South Memphis, Teach For America community organizer Tami Sawyer is running against incumbent John DeBerry, perhaps the legislature’s most vocal proponent of vouchers. Sawyer, who has called for “comprehensive public education reform,” said she does not have a position on vouchers at this time.

And in District 98, Johnnie Hatten, a leader with the parent group called Memphis Lift, which is tied to the Achievement School District, is facing off against Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a vocal critic of the state-run school turnaround district who has advocated for stemming its expansion. The district includes Raleigh and parts of Bartlett and North Memphis.

Williams, Hatten and DeBerry all have the backing of political action committees attached to advocacy groups including the Tennessee Federation for Children and StudentsFirst Tennessee, which aim to increase school choice options across the state, particularly in the form of vouchers. Williams also has received $5,000 from his employer, Campaign for School Equity, formerly known as the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Those candidates also have benefitted from thousands of dollars worth of mailers and advertisements paid for by those group. Tennessee Federation for Children, for example, has spent about $27,000 on materials supporting DeBerry, $15,000 on materials supporting Williams, $17,000 on materials opposing Turner, Williams’ opponent.

In separate statements, Tennessee Federation for Children and StudentsFirst said they chose to support candidates based on their qualifications in education, deep ties to the community, and openness to school choice policies, including vouchers, that the organizations believe will improve educational opportunities in Memphis. A proposal to offer private school tuition vouchers to low-income students has divided the legislature for almost a decade and this year advanced the farthest it’s ever come before fizzling on the House floor.

On the other hand, Turner and Parkinson have received relatively small amounts from the state teacher union’s political action committee in recognition of their stances against vouchers and their cautious approach to expanding the ASD.

Sawyer hasn’t garnered support from education advocacy organizations, but she has received small donations from individuals involved in Memphis education such as Hopson.

Note: Commercial Appeal columnist David Waters lives in state Rep. Antonio Parkinson’s district and is not impressed with the direct mail pieces he’s been getting from special interest PACs. An interesting read, HERE.