The political action committee of ex-chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools Michelle Rhee’s new education advocacy organization has contributed financially to a trio of Metro school board candidates.
District 5 school board candidate Elissa Kim, District 7 candidate Will Pinkston and District 9 candidate Margaret Dolan each received $3,000 apiece from the Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First PAC during the second quarter campaign finance period, which ended June 19.
In all, the national StudentsFirst PAC — which many critics label pro-privatization — donated $134,000 to Tennesseans over the last three months, with state Republican lawmakers receiving the vast majority of contributions.
The election for Metro’s five school board races and state primaries is Aug. 2. Early voting begins Thursday. Metro school board candidates are required to submit their second quarter financial disclosures to the Davidson County Election Commission Tuesday.
The newly formed state PAC is an offshoot of StudentsFirst, an organization Rhee launched as a “grassroots movement” after leaving Washington’s school district during the fall of 2010. Similar PACs have formed in other states. Rhee is the ex-wife of Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
Rhee, a charter school proponent who turned controversial for her hostility toward teachers’ unions, has outlined a bold goal of raising $1 billion to lobby legislatures and back political candidates with her new endeavor. A sliver of those dollars has arrived in Tennessee –– and at the local scene via Nashville and Memphis school board races.
Mike Carpenter, a former Republican Shelby County commissioner who serves as StudentsFirst’s state director in Tennessee, told The City Paper the PAC supports “reform-minded” candidates willing to challenge the status quo.
“We’re making good on that commitment,” Carpenter said of the Tennessee StudentsFirst PAC’s most recent round of donations, including its Metro school board endorsements.
In addition to supporting Dolan, Pinkston and Kim, StudentsFirst’s Tennessee branch contributed to a host of Republican lawmakers and candidates during the last quarter: $10,000 to state Senate District 20 candidate Steve Dickerson; $10,000 to state Senate District 18 candidate Ferrell Haile; $6,500 to District 65 House candidate Billy Spivey; $5,000 to Rep. Kevin Brooks; $8,500 to Rep. Joey Hensey; $5,000 to Rep. Charles Sargent; $3,000 to Rep. Debra Maggart; and $1,500 to Rep. Jim Gotto, among other Republicans.
Memphis Democratic state representatives John DeBerry and G.A. Hardaway received $2,500 and $5,000, respectively, from the StudentsFirst PAC.
The PAC made a single $3,000 contribution during the year’s first quarter. After forming in 2011, the organization’s contributions totaled $117,000 across Tennessee during last year’s final reporting period.
“Our interest is not in what somebody’s party is,” Carpenter said. “Our interest is whether or not they support the kind of reforms we think needs to happen to transform public schools. In this particular case in Tennessee, it happens to be that most are Republicans.”
StudentsFirst’s policy priorities, according to its website, include strengthening teacher evaluations, implementing performance-based pay for teachers, and expanding “school choice” for parents.
According to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, StudentsFirst supported a controversial voucher bill during the most recent legislative sessions, one in which Gov. Bill Haslam helped delay consideration for at least one year. The group also supported Haslam’s retreated plans to let schools increase average class sizes.
Dolan is running against four others for the District 9 seat held by departing board member Kay Simmons. Pinkston has two opponents for an open District 7 seat. Kim is one of three candidates challenging school board chair Gracie Porter for the District 5 seat.
In backing Dolan and Kim, the StudentsFirst PAC put its money behind candidates that also have the support of the pro-charter Great Public Schools local PAC.
But Pinkston, a former aide in former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration, has received the endorsement of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers union, which holds positions seemingly at odds with StudentsFirst.
“I’m proud to have the support of MNEA,” Pinkston said, adding that StudentsFirst arrived on the state’s political scene after he had departed Bredesen’s governor’s office.
“Because somebody contributes money does not mean a candidate or a board member is in lockstep with anybody’s particular views,” Pinkston said.