With reforms on table, Rhee's StudentsFirst gives generously to legislative campaigns

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 2:01am

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.

11 Comments on this post:

By: ancienthighway on 1/15/13 at 6:14

And they said money can't buy you love.

By: ChrisMoth on 1/15/13 at 8:29

Money cannot buy love, but it might buy a committee placement. I understand Ms. Harwell may have replaced Craig Fitzhugh with John DeBerry on the education committee.... and that merits investigative reporting.

It is right for this paper to also report on contributions from TEA.

Both streams of contributions are tiny relative to the many hundreds of million $ in the states education budget. Surely our leaders will not redirect policy based on piddly checks from demagogues. ... right? ....

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: Rocket99 on 1/15/13 at 9:09

The speaker of the House and Senate can appoint whoever they like to whichever committee with no other reason than they wanted to. Investigative reporting may uncover less than scrupulous reasons for an appointment but unfortunately I doubt it would change anything.

I'm for education but believe the charter schools option should be left to the individual school districts without DOE trying to bully them like they did Metro. Also am not fond of the voucher program. Waiting to see if Haslam tries to circumvent federal laws concerning vouchers. He's already on the hot seat with the Feds over DCS.

By: KENW on 1/15/13 at 9:32

Unfortunately, as we've seen in Nashville, leaving it to the local school districts only allows the local bureaucrats to fight for their own self interest, rather than for what parents want and students need. We need someone working for students and parents, and in Nashville that means we have to look to the state or federal government, because some members of the local school board will only work for self interest.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/15/13 at 9:53

Moonglow1: So Rhee got kicked out of Washington DC (google her), then she went to Florida with the crook (former HCA) Rick Scott, now she's here with x husband, TN's education commissioner. She will definitely ruin our education system. She supports using tax dollars to privatize. Vouchers are not the answer. She's a dud! A loser! So now she's here.

By: ancienthighway on 1/15/13 at 10:09

@KENW: Based on what I've seen from the state on the teaching-the-test and Great Hearts issue, I'd have to say the state will not act in the best interest of the children.

If the locals aren't doing the job satisfactory, then they should be recalled.

"6-31-304 - Board of education member Recall election.

At such election, the voter shall vote either “for recall” or “against recall.” If sixty-six percent (66%) of those voting vote “for recall,” the person named shall be declared removed from office and the office declared vacant. Such vacancy shall be filled as directed in § 6-36-107. The method of removal shall be cumulative and additional to the methods heretofore existing by law. No more than one (1) election for the purpose of recall shall be held in any six-month period, and no such election shall be held within a period beginning ninety (90) days before and ending ninety (90) days after a regular municipal election.

[Acts 1957, ch. 238, § 3.16; 1959, ch. 139, § 1; 1972, ch. 740, § 4(56); T.C.A., § 6-3118.]"

By: Balo on 1/15/13 at 3:59

As time passes, more is learned of the devious attempts to hijack public education. This article further proves that we are dealing with an entitlement generation who will go to any cost to get get heir hands on government money for profit. In this case, they are hedging their bets on the backs of the school children of the state of Tennessee. It is a movement of shameless behavior and only regard for profit.

The answer to good public education is not school vouchers, it is not Charter schools, and it is not Teach America. These are gimmicks to push public education over the cliff and to move the public education money to the business community and to the politicians.

I strongly recommend to any common sense politicians that these educational committees be dissolved along with the State Department of Education. When you thing about it, it makes sense.

By: pswindle on 1/15/13 at 4:52

After I learned that Rhee and Huffman were in this together, I knew that they were in it together to rob MNPS. TN will be easy for Rhee because she has her ex-husband and out of touch Haslam on her side. They want to get big bucks from Metro. The parents , students and citizens of Davidson County should rise up and demand that she leave town and Huffman needs to be fired and Haslam should not be re-elected. Everywhere that Rhee has been, she has destroyed the school system and walked off with big bucks. Surely, TN is wiser and better than to fall for this scam. Mayor Dean, now is the time for you to take a stand and not let the state take over Metro. The GOP Legislative Branch is a joke because money talks louder than what is right for our children and citizens. But, with the GOP in total control our state will suffer in many ways, but education is where the money is and that is where they are going. Huffman should be made to return Metro's money especially with the news of the dirty work on his behalf along with his ex-wife. I knew something else was going on besides Great Hearts. Rhee could not get her foot in the door and it made both husband and wife mad as hell. Now that they have bought into the Legislativer Branch, they hope to get their way. Way to go Beth, let's sell out our state to the highest bidder.

By: boyzmom on 1/15/13 at 5:16

I agree with everything you said, pswindle. The more I see of Haslam, the less I like him. He does not have the best interests of students, teachers, or communities at heart. He is bought and paid for by special interest groups. I hope he will be a one-term governor. I would also like to run Rhee and Huffman out of town, as they are up to no good.

By: kellyfretz on 1/16/13 at 9:23

It's time for the parents, teachers and school administrators to stand up to the bullies in our government and take back our schools. They, people like Rhee and Huffman, are not interested in making sure that our children are getting a good education in our public schools or even creating education reform that will truly make a difference. They are all about the money and what it will do for them and their political careers. We need to kick them out of Tennessee, too, and they can take Haslam with them. He is no friend to the public school system and needs to be replaced!

By: ohplease on 1/17/13 at 9:10

Has anyone seen a list of contributors to StudentsFirst? And is there any organized plan to try to prevent the damage that Rhee, Huffman, and their fellow "reformers" have in mind?