National Groups Battle on Vouchers

By Boucher, Dave | News Sentinel, May 5, 2015 | Go to article overview

National Groups Battle on Vouchers


Boucher, Dave, News Sentinel


After years of lobbying, millions of dollars from in-state and out-of-state advocacy groups and the support of the governor and other legislative leaders, school vouchers are still banned in Tennessee.

Republican lawmakers and conservative groups are more likely to support what they call "opportunity scholarships," public funds to offset the cost of private school education for some students. And with the GOP supermajority at the General Assembly, many issues backed by conservative groups have become law.

But not always in education. Apart from a limited program to allow vouchers for special-needs students passed this year, there have been just enough Republican lawmakers to join with Democrats in beating back vouchers. The bill to let parents choose to transform their school into a charter school -- known as the parent trigger bill -- also failed.

"Unfortunately, (the voucher) bill was stalled for a number of reasons.

See VOUCHER, 13A

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 Brent Easley, state director for StudentsFirst Tennessee.

Outside spending

California-based Students First was created by former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee, the former wife of Tennessee education head Kevin Huffman. The organization also goes locally by the name Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First, and has advocated vouchers since the end of 2012.

It 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-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 Democratic 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 Easley disagree. Schultz's organization released a poll earlier this year that it believes shows increasing public support for vouchers. Both groups have advocated 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. …

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