(Note: Below are excerpts and links to a package of articles on influence of groups based outside the state on in-state policy that was produced by Tennessee’s four largest news organizations — The Commercial Appeal, The Tennessean, The Knoxville News Sentinel and The Chattanooga Times Free Press — collaborating at the Tennessee News Network. The overview story is posted in full HERE.)
Pro-vouncher lobby, including American Federation for Children and StudentsFirst, lost again in 2015 Legislature
From David Boucher of The Tennessean:
“Unfortunately, (the voucher) bill was stalled for a number of reasons. Lobbying groups representing district school boards, for instance, claimed budgetary concerns while groups like ours pointed to school choice having a positive educational impact for students,” said Ted Boyatt, spokesman for an organization called Students First.
California-based Students First…spent as much as $213,907 on lobbying in 2014, with its political action committee spending $573,917 during the two years leading up to the 2014 election, according to state finance records.
Washington, D.C.-based Tennessee Federation for Children, the state chapter of the American Federation for Children, spent as much as $150,000 on lobbying in 2014 and $606,345 during the 2014 campaign cycle, according to campaign finance records.
It didn’t work. One Democrat, former Rep. Gloria Johnson, was ousted, but other Democrat targets — including Nashville Reps. Darren Jernigan and Jason Powell — survived campaign onslaughts from outside groups.
Although Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the Tennessee Federation for Children, argued the money helped elect “school choice” candidates, the voucher bill continues to die in a House finance subcommittee.
“Our public education system is the bedrock of our communities and their success and it is not for sale,” said Lyn Hoyt, a spokeswoman for Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, a group advocating against vouchers. “Citizens see through a lot of this paid PR agenda to sway public opinion if they are experiencing the changes in the system. The changes have been so swift and painful, trust is gone.”
Schultz and Boyatt disagree. Schultz’s organization released a poll earlier this year that it believes shows increasing public support for vouchers. Both groups have advocated for vouchers for three years, and they both believe the bill is gaining some traction at the state Capitol.
“I think our organization has made a positive impact in raising the profile of this issue and advancing the debate on school choice. Progress on such an important issue doesn’t happen overnight, and each year has been more successful than the last,” Boyatt said.
The more successful groups advocated against a program that drains money from public schools and doesn’t work, said Tennessee Education Association spokesman Jim Wrye.
The TEA, one of the largest teachers unions in the state, opposes vouchers. Although the union lost considerable power when collective bargaining rights were nixed in Tennessee, it still spent big: $530,130 by its political action committee in the 2014 election cycle, and as much as $175,000 in lobbying in 2014, according to state campaign finance records.
“TEA was the key to defeating vouchers. All public education groups rallied to defeat the measure, but the political strength came from the members of TEA,” Wrye said in a statement.