With education issues high on the agenda for the upcoming legislative session, the Tennessean observes that two new groups that favor charter schools and vouchers have spent lavishly on Tennessee House and Senate races. The Tennessee PAC affiliated with StudentsFirst, a Sacramento, Calif.-based organization led by former Washington, D.C., Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee, has pumped $376,266 into Tennessee this year. That sum includes contributions to a handful of local school board contenders in Nashville and Memphis but far more to candidates seeking state legislative seats.
Most of the recipients are Republicans. StudentsFirst’s Tennessee PAC, formed last year, spent $66,150 in the Volunteer State over the past month alone, according to financial disclosures submitted last week.
During the same four-week time frame, a PAC called Tennessee Federation for Children, a branch of a Washington organization that expanded to Tennessee this spring, accounted for $145,302 in contributions and other expenditures.
The group spent $248,539 in Tennessee altogether this year, with money going to direct mail efforts and to pro-voucher candidates.
“The hope is that we can get them elected and that we’ll form a very strong and committed educational ‘choice’ majority in the legislature,” said Malcom Glenn, communications director for the American Federation for Children. Its Tennessee PAC contributed $10,000 to the PAC of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, $7,200 to the PAC of House Speaker Beth Harwell and $2,500 to District 20 Senate candidate Steve Dickerson of Nashville, among a long list of others.
“We support all school options, including vouchers,” Glenn said.
In an article on the booming education reform advocacy movement around the nation, Education Week cites StudentsFirst in Tennessee as an example. Take, for example, the Tennessee wing of StudentsFirst. Since opening its doors in 2011, the organization has backed legislation or policies to link teacher evaluations to student performance, including test scores; set higher standards for teacher tenure; lift restrictions on class sizes; and offer private school vouchers for disadvantaged students in academically struggling schools.
Not all of those efforts, such as the class-size and voucher measures, became law. But the group is convinced it’s building a reputation as an authoritative voice on school issues at the Statehouse, said Mike Carpenter, the director of StudentsFirst’s Tennessee chapter.
“The message is, ‘We’re here for the long term,’ ” said Mr. Carpenter, a Republican and a former member of the Shelby County Commission. “We’re not here to parachute in for one or two issues and then leave.”
The organization’s success will be measured by whether it becomes a “go-to organization when people want to know something about education, and education reform,” he said. “When legislators start saying, ‘Where is StudentsFirst on this issue?’ then I’ll know we’re having an impact.”
The Tennessee chapter has eight registered lobbyists, some of them hired on a contract basis, working on its behalf at the Statehouse, including Mr. Carpenter and Michelle A. Rhee, the founder and chief executive officer of the national Students First organization. That’s about the same number the Tennessee Education Association says it has promoting its agenda.
Full-court presses are fairly common in Washington lobbying, observes Andy Sher, but the combination of polling and campaign contributions combined with paid TV ads is still somewhat rare in Tennessee. Until now. After making substantial campaign contributions to state lawmakers and commissioning a poll to show support for its issues, the education reform group StudentsFirst now is running television ads urging viewers to contact state lawmakers to support three bills the organization backs in the Legislature.
“Last year our legislators took courageous steps to rebuild our schools with great teachers in every classroom,” says the 30-second spot, which employs colored building blocks to begin constructing a school. “Let’s keep building. To make it easier to hire math, science and business professionals who want to teach, stop forced placement and put the right teachers in the right schools.
“Empower parents,” the narrator continues. “Give them a trigger to force school boards to take aggressive action to fix broken schools. Call your legislator. Tell them to keep putting students first. Support comprehensive education reform.”
The measures include an alternative certification bill expanding schools’ ability to hire professionals with expertise in math, science and other areas, including college professors, who don’t have teacher certification.
Another bill requires that both a principal and the teacher must consent before a teacher is placed in a vacant position in a school. The third supports Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal and would make it easier for the state’s new Achievement School District to turn around failing schools.
The ad lists legislative numbers of specific members of the House and Senate Education committees, where the bills are scheduled to be heard next week.
StudentsFirst says its spending on the ads is in the “six figures.”
A new Tennessee PAC took $126,000 from its parent organization in Washington on Dec. 8, 2011, then distributed $117,000 of the money to state legislator campaign causes by Jan. 9, 2012, according to its first campaign finance disclosure. Andy Sher has more: Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First… is the creation of StudentsFirst, a group pushing its version of education reform. The group was created by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system. Rhee is the ex-wife of state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, whose boss is Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
(Note: Students First also did a state poll – apparently paying for it outside the PAC, which discloses no poll spending – and provided the results to legislative leaders, several of whom received PAC money. The poll found the public supports proposals the group is pushing. It also shows the Legislature has a 63 percent approval rating among voters. See post below, or direct link to Tennessean story HERE.) All of the PAC’s $126,000 in funding comes from StudentsFirst. The StudentsFirst PAC ranked No. 5 in contribution to individual lawmakers or legislative candidates with $65,400. Most contributions went to Republicans, who dominate the General Assembly these days. But Democrats were not forgotten.
The Senate Republican Caucus received $10,000 as did the House Republican Caucus. The PAC gave $5,000 each to the House Democratic Caucus and the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s leadership committee, RAAMPAC, got $5,000 as did Ramsey’s personal campaign. Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell got $5,000 for her leadership committee, Harwell PAC, and another $5,000 for her personal campaign.
A majority of Tennessee voters support education reform and think the state is heading in the right direction, a recent poll found, reports The Tennessean. A memo to state lawmakers last week from Mike Carpenter, Tennessee’s director of nonprofit StudentsFirst, showed its poll backed teacher tenure changes, new teacher evaluations and more charter schools. The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, surveyed 600 likely voters on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, and had a 4 percent margin of error.
Among the findings: 72 percent of those polled like teacher evaluation changes, 68 percent favor alternate teaching licenses and 58 percent favor ending forced placement of teachers by districts without teacher or principal consent.
Gov. Bill Haslam garnered a 72 percent approval rating and lawmakers a 63 percent approval rating by voters.