11/08/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Education PACs Backing Charters, Vouchers, Show Muscle In Tennessee Elections

Two groups promoting charter schools and vouchers poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into state and local political races this year and wrote some of their biggest checks last month as they pushed to fill state House and Senate chambers with supporters.

StudentsFirst, the anti-union group started by former Washington D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee, has handed out $427,000 through its Tennessee PAC so far this year, including $66,000 in October, according to the latest filings with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

The American Federation for Children, which moved into Tennessee last spring, has given $276,000 through its PAC, including $145,300 in the four weeks leading up to the election.

"We want to ensure that folks in clearly contested races are secure in their ability to get re-elected," Malcom Glenn, the Federation's national spokesman, said Monday.

"We want to build the largest majority as possible," he said for positions the Federation supports, including opportunity scholarships (vouchers) that children in public schools could use to attend private schools and charter schools."

StudentsFirst, based in Sacramento, Calif., is interested in promoting vouchers and other school choice options, including strengthening a parent trigger law currently on the books that allows parents to petition to turn chronically underperforming schools into charter schools.

If 60 percent of a school's parents sign the petition, the school board must consider the change.

"But the school board gets the final say. We'd like to see parents in Tennessee have more power," said Brent Easley, state spokesman.

The Governor's Opportunity Scholarship Task Force will meet Tuesday to approve final recommendations of what it wants a voucher program in Tennessee to be.

Both groups decided where they would invest after polling candidates in surveys they do not share with the public.

Two years ago, neither existed in Tennessee. Their entry has raised the ante for the Tennessee Education Association. Its PAC has given $343,238 this year, up from the $284,357 it invested in political races in 2010.

"You have to follow the money," said TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters. "Groups funded by big business are something that teacher organizations are going to have a very difficult time competing with," he said.

"We did not give any contributions to any candidate who was part of what we consider the attack on collective bargaining, who voted to repeal a law that was in place for 35 years," Winters said.

The TEA PAC is funded from teacher dues, although teachers may indicate they do not want to support the PAC. "Fortunately, very few want their money redirected to other activities," Winters said. "Teachers see the impact politics has on their lives."

But with a declining membership, Winters says raising money is harder. (In 2010 TEA membership was 52,000; today it is 46,000.)

StudentsFirst, which has associations in 17 states, characterized its expenditures in Tennessee as "middle of the pack" compared to other states.

American Federation, based in Washington, invested in 100 legislative races in nine states.

"Our involvement varies from state to state, but Tennessee is among the states where we see the most potential for enacting high-quality education reform in the upcoming election," Glenn said Tuesday, characterizing it as "one of several states at the top of our list."

Both groups transfer money from national fundraising efforts to their state chapters. Under the rules of their nonprofit organization, they do not have to report their donors. ___

(c)2012 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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