Members of the General Assembly’s education committees collectively benefitted from $165,000 in campaign cash last year from a high-profile organization wanting to see several hot topic reforms written into law.
Most of those dollars went to the re-election efforts of Rep. John DeBerry, a socially conservative Memphis Democrat who has long sat on the House Education Committee.
The committees are positioned to evaluate a handful of controversial education bills this year backed by the education reform group StudentsFirst, which was one of the most generous campaign contributors in 2012.
Led by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, StudentsFirst spent $112,113 on DeBerry, pouring most the money into canvassing and more than $5,500 into phone-banking.
Expected on the docket this year are three hotly contested proposals: one to allow groups wanting to give charter schools the option to apply to a statewide panel; one to create a school voucher program; and one to strengthen parents’ ability to turn around failing schools. StudentsFirst supports all of those plans.
Four other lawmakers on the 15-member House Education Committee were on the receiving end of the group’s political generosity to the tune of $16,500, including Reps. Kevin Brooks with $5,000; Debra Moody with $5,000; Dawn White with $1,500 and Ryan Williams with $5,000. Members were appointed to the committee by House Speaker Beth Harwell.
Members sitting on the Senate Education Committee collectively took in $36,500 from StudentsFirst. Those members include Education chair Delores Gresham with $10,000; Sens. Steve Dickerson with $11,500; Todd Gardenhire with $1,500; Joey Hensley with $13,500.
According to campaign finance reports, which do not yet include spending data from the fourth quarter of the year, contributions to candidates who landed on either education committee amount to almost half of StudentsFirst’s nearly $360,000 in spending.
StudentsFirst isn’t the only group that used their financial influence to fuel last year’s campaigns. Another major group to donate was the Tennessee Education Association, which has lost sway on Capitol Hill since Republicans took over leadership of both chambers.
The TEA donated $15,000 to members who ended up on House Education Committee, including $5,000 to Clarksville Democrat Rep. Joe Pitts; $3,500 to Rep. Lois DeBerry; $2,000 each to Republican Reps. Ron Lollar and Jim Coley; $1,500 to Rep Harold Love Jr.; and $1,000 to Rep. John DeBerry. The largely Democrat-leaning TEA did not donate to lawmakers sitting on the Senate Education Committee.