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The $27.1 million clash between education reform and public school advocates

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The $27.1 million clash between education reform and public school advocates

Nov 30, 2023 | 8:01 pm ET
By Adam Friedman
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The $27.1 million clash between education reform and public school advocates
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Gov. Bill Lee with Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Nashville on Nov. 28, 2023, for Lee's announcement he will push to provide private school vouchers statewide in a plan he titled the "Education Freedom Scholarship Act of 2024." (Photo: John Partipilo)

Before state Rep. Bob Ramsey could react, outside money poured into his Republican primary, and mailboxes throughout his district were full of attack advertisements.

Ramsey, whose state House seat is in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Maryville, Tenn., considered himself a moderate member of the state’s GOP caucus. 

But, most consequential to his latest reelection campaign in 2022, he backed the Tennessee Education Association and his local school board over charter schools and vouchers. 

“I think enough people got together and decided they wanted to get rid of me,” Ramsey told the Lookout during an interview conducted in July. “They poked around until they could find enough inflammatory stands I took and then created enough of a smokescreen to make it seem like I was packing my pockets.”

The $27.1 million clash between education reform and public school advocates
A stack of mailers attacking former state Rep. Bob Ramsey in his 2022 Republican primary. (Photo: Submitted)

Three education reform groups — TennesseeCAN, Tennessee Federation for Children and Tennesseans for Student Success — spent $91,849 on independent expenditures attacking Ramsey for not supporting “parental choice” or supporting his opponent.

Over the past 15 years, those three organizations have spent $3.5 million on independent campaign expenditures, a type of political spending that involves using money to support or oppose a candidate, often through mail, social media or TV advertisements. 

Independent expenditures offer advantages over regular political donations. There is no limit on how much a group can spend backing or opposing a specific candidate, and because these limits don’t apply, most of the money raised goes undisclosed. 

They also warn other lawmakers they could be next if they fall on the wrong side of an issue. 

But independent expenditures are just the start of the financial glacier that has rolled over Tennessee, creating an education reform movement out of thin air. The independent spenders are three of 11 education reform organizations using vast amounts of money to influence Tennessee’s politics, state lobbying and campaign finance reports show. 

These education reform organizations can be divided into nonprofit think tanks, charter school operators and political advocacy arms. All these groups work together and often receive money from the same list of wealthy foundations and families.

Since 2009, these 11 organizations have legally spent $16.26 million on Tennessee politics, according to a political spending database created by the Lookout

Together, they’ve hired dozens of lobbyists to tilt the education funding playing field in their favor, given millions to state politicians to become an integral backbone of campaign fundraising and used independent expenditures to knock off candidates, both Republican and Democrat, who stand in their way. 

These groups, who call themselves the leaders of education reform, have ignited a clash with public education advocates who, in turn, have spent $10.88 million over the same 15-year period, totaling $27.1 million spent by both sides

About half of the public education advocates’ spending is done by the Tennessee Education Association, a quasi-teachers union. Other members of this group include lobbying associations for school boards, superintendents and the state’s largest public school systems in Nashville and Memphis. 

Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education Foundation, said public education advocates have a larger and more established base, but with each passing year they’re being outspent by well-funded charter school groups.

“If you removed all the people being paid to support charter schools, you would have just a handful of wealthy people left as supporters,” Burris said. “Versus on the public education side, it’s thousands of teachers and parents.”

Groups all tied together

All of the education reform groups have different names and slight distinctions, but ultimately, they are funded by a set of millionaires and billionaires, backing the same politicians and hiring many of the same lobbying firms.

As of 2023, the 11 education reform groups used six firms to employ 37 lobbyists. The sheer volume allows these groups to amplify their voices and become highly influential. 

During the 2023 legislative session, Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, ran up against the industry when he sponsored a bill to block the expansion of charter schools into districts that didn’t have a failing school by state standards. 

“It wasn’t an anti-charter bill,” Whitson said. “But I think they were defensive, and they mobilized their forces.”

Within a week of introducing the legislation, Whitson’s bill was dead after lobbyists for all other education reform groups and Gov. Bill Lee’s administration stopped it before it could get out of a subcommittee. 

“It’s amazing how many lobbyists are employed by the charter industry,” he added. 

The ties between these groups and the Lee administration run deep. Brent Easley, the former legislative director for Lee from 2019 until Oct. 2023, previously worked as an executive director at TennesseeCan and its predecessor StudentsFirst.

John DeBerry, a former Democratic state representative from Memphis and now a senior advisor to Lee, received $242,907 in independent support from TennesseeCan and Tennessee Federation Children while in office — twice as much as any other candidate. 

Education reform groups’ influence over Republican primaries

The charter school spending in Tennessee is typical. TennesseeCan and Tennessee Federation for Children are part of national organizations spending money in several states, and independent spending has become part of the charter school organization’s playbook for gaining political power. 

Charles Siler, a former lobbyist with the pro-charter Goldwater Institute in Arizona, said the spending is all about fear. 

“They know how much money gets spent in the campaign,” Siler said. “They don’t have enough money to take out everybody they want to take out. But the fact that any of you could be next also sends a message.”

For independent spending in Tennessee, 2022 marked a shift with the entrance of Tennesseans for Student Success in the primary process. 

Student Success is multifaceted, spending money on advertisements that rate state politicians based on their pro-charter votes and running a pro-charter news site called the TN FireFly. 

It stands out for its dark money practices. Unlike the Federation for Children or TennesseeCan, the only donor to the political action committee run by Tennesseans for Student Success is itself. 

The organization has raised nearly $15.6 million since its founding in 2014, according to an IRS database created by ProPublica, while the only publicly known donations are $250,000 from the Tennessee Business Partnership and $300,000 from the Campaign for Great Public Schools, another education reform group spending money nationwide, including in Tennessee on lobbying and donations. 

“This partnership involves a diverse group of supporters who have the right to maintain their privacy and we respect that right,” said Sky Arnold, Student Success’ communications director, in response to questions emailed by the Lookout. “State and federal financial laws do require disclosure and we follow those laws each year.” 

Loopholes established by the U.S. Supreme Court mean the public will likely never know TSS’s donors, but the organization has used this money effectively. 

During the 2022 election cycle, the group spent around $537,937 independently in 15 state races, winning 13, including picking off two incumbent Republicans.

Ramsey was one of the candidates successfully defeated from their seats by Student Success. 

He voted against most legislation favoring charter schools, including the bills to create the governor-appointed charter commission and school vouchers.

If you removed all the people being paid to support charter schools, you would have just a handful of wealthy people left as supporters

– Carol Burris, Network for Public Education Foundation

Tennessee Federation for Children and TennesseeCan strongly support school vouchers, or education savings accounts, as they call them. 

Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Foundation-funded group, is also pro-voucher and spent money in 2022 election. But Americans for Prosperity pushes for other issues such as lower taxes and less government regulation. 

The other group spending money in the education reform space is Stand for Children, which has at times spent money to back education reform candidates, but only sometimes. The group spent $14,732 to elect Whitson in 2016, who isn’t explicitly pro-charter school. 

At one point, Stand for Children, Federation for Children, TennesseeCan’s predecessor and Students Success were part of a group called the Tennessee Coalition for Students. 

Rep. Bryan Richey, R-Maryville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Bryan Richey, R-Maryville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Arnold made it clear Students for Success doesn’t support vouchers. But, Student Success has been a prominent backer of Lee, whose administration has been at the forefront of pushing for vouchers. The group spent $96,060 to independently back his reelection in 2022. 

Ramsey opposed the legislative slate of vouchers and pro-charter legislation because he said he supported his local public school system and didn’t want to do anything to “remove local control” or hurt its already tight finances. 

He received some support from the Tennessee Education Association, which mainly spent its money on lobbying and donations. The organization spent $142,368 on independent expenditures over the past 15 years, including $1,768 to support Ramsey in 2022. 

Ramsey’s defeat paved the way for Bryan Richey, a more conservative member of the state House Republican caucus, to win the election.

During his one year in the legislature, Richey hasn’t drawn much attention except for his opposition to gun laws and, in particular, Lee’s attempt to pass a red flag law following the Covenant School shooting in Nashville.

Lee called a special legislative session in August 2023 to address gun violence and push for the legislation. Lawmakers expected the session to last at least 3-4 days, but Richey tried to end it within two hours, believing the longer lawmakers remained in session, the more likely they were to pass some gun regulations, an idea he adamantly opposed. 

For some Democrats, the backing of Richey was par for the course. 

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, said these groups only care about finding candidates who will back their agenda when it comes to funding and don’t really care about education policy debates. 

“The radical, dark money groups lobbying to end public education as we know it have zero credibility when it comes to the best interests of students,” Campbell said. “When the Tennessee GOP is attacking the rights of LGBTQ students, banning library books and honest history lessons, and blocking measures to stop school shootings, these groups are nowhere to be found.”

Timely donations to Gov. Lee spark rise of Tennessee charter operator with dubious ties