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REVEALED: Billionaires, millionaires, corporate interests fuel battle over Tennessee schools

Posted: 5:44 PM, Mar 07, 2022
Updated: 2022-08-19 23:12:36-04
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — These days on Capitol Hill, the big drama playing out is a push by some to reshape public education here in Tennessee or, in the view of some, to destroy it.

Advocates say that push is coming from families.

But an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation reveals they're not the ones paying for the multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign. In this case, our investigation discovered, the people writing the checks include billionaires and millionaires from outside Tennessee.

"Who speaks for the children? We really view that as our job," said Shaka Mitchell with the American Federation for Children.

When lawmakers are in session, student trips to the state Capitol are part civics lessons and part public relations — a chance for advocates to put on a show for lawmakers in support of what advocates call "school choice."

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Students from a Chattanooga charter school

"I think it looks like dollars that follow students from school to school," Mitchell said.

"I think it looks like letting parents take some some of those funds and take them to a private school or use them as home school if that's the option that best meets their needs."

Related: Charter school program rewrites civil rights history

On another day at the legislature, we found what was essentially a show-and-tell for charter schools, those privately operated schools funded with tax dollars.

Here, the students are the ambassadors, some as young as seven.

"This is an opportunity to put those kids of display and allow us to see all the great things that are happening in the schools," said Maya Bugg with the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The children's faces serve as faces for a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort, although the people leading those campaigns don't always like to call it that.

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Maya Bugg, Tennessee School Charter Center

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Bugg, "Who is funding this lobbying effort?"

"Which lobbying effort?"

"For charter schools."

Bugg replied, "So we are a non-profit -- so minimal effort is put into lobbying. We do a lot of education. We educate legislators about the issues."

The truth is the Tennessee School Charter Center employs a big firm that calls itself "Tennessee's Lobbying Powerhouse."

We had spotted that group's lobbying team hitting the pre-session campaign fundraisers, trying to curry favor with legislative leaders.

So far, NewsChannel 5 has counted at least 61 registered lobbyists on the school privatization side, compared to just 17 lobbying for traditional public schools.

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Tennessee education lobbyist breakdown

"There is a national movement to dismantle public education, and I didn't really believe that when I first became involved in this discussion. But that's what's happening," said Amy Frogge, a former Metro School Board member, a Metro School parent and a public education activist.

"Largely this is coming from corporate interests, from billionaires, from millionaires outside the state."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Do you feel like you're outgunned?"

"Absolutely," Frogge said with a laugh. "The entire time I've been working in this area. It's been a David-Goliath battle."

Newly updated data shows that school privatization groups spent an estimated $8.7 million dollars to lobby state officials over the past five years.

That's almost double the amount spent by traditional education groups.

(The self-reported amount reported by school privatization groups may not include expenditures that they choose to classify as "education," instead of lobbying.)

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Estimated lobbying expenditures (2017-2021)

"We at the American Federation for Children view ourselves as the lobbyists for kindergarteners," Shaka Mitchell said.

In fact, the American Federation for Children appears to be funded by billionaire Betsy DeVos and her family.

A spokesperson with the Tennessee chapter of the American Federation for Children declined to provide anyone for a follow-up interview to discuss the group's funding.

DeVos, who has worked with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, previously suggested to a gathering of evangelicals that part of her goal is taxpayer funding for religious schools.

"Our desire is to ... confront the culture in which we all live today in ways which will continue to advance God's kingdom," she said.

Amy Frogge's reaction: "I think that is dangerous territory."

NewsChannel 5 asked, "If we are willing to accept taxpayer funding for Christian schools, then we have to accept taxpayer funding for Muslim schools?"

"Exactly," Frogge answered.

"Satanic schools?"

"Right. You've opened the door to any type of religious teaching."

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Amy Frogge, public education activist

Another lobbying group that we had spotted works for 50CAN, the Campaign for Achievement Now.

They and another group, the Campaign for Great Public Schools, funded at least in part by Netflix billionaire Reed Hastings.

Hastings also has ties to the Rocketship chain of charter schools and has invested in DreamBox Learning, a company that sells educational software.

A relatively new player on the scene, a group called "yes every kid," along with Americans for Prosperity are linked to billionaire Charles Koch.

They also want taxpayer funding for religious schools.

And the group that put on the show and tell for charter schools, the Tennessee Charter School Center, has received funding from billionaire Bill Gates and the Walton family of Walmart fame.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted to Maya Bugg, "The criticism is that this is a lobbying effort being funded by billionaires and millionaires."

"I would push back on that," she replied.

"So this isn't about billionaires, they are not getting anything from this. The Walton Foundation isn't getting anything from this, but our parents and families do. They're funding this because we've been able to get some good work done."

Also fueling the lobbying battle are companies who see the potential for big profits from getting your tax dollars to operate these publicly funded charter schools.

And just like those lobbyists we saw heading into the fundraisers with their big checks, NewsChannel 5 discovered school privatization forces dumping lots of campaign money into state elections: almost $1.1 million dollars over the past five years, the overwhelming majority to Republicans.

Of that, $176,000 of that went to Gov. Bill Lee.

That doesn't include dark-money contributions spent to support or oppose candidates where there is no public disclosure.

By comparison, the Tennessee Education Association PAC has contributed $696,000 to candidates in that same time period.

"If they can get the right people elected, then they don't have to work through local school boards — and I think legislators need a lot of money to run campaigns," Frogge said.

Those efforts to take away local control are coming down to what could be a crucial vote this session.

Outside the Senate Education Committee, NewsChannel 5 Investigates saw the same lobbyists we had spotted at those pre-session fundraisers, there hoping for a win.

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School privatization lobbyist Mark Cate at legislative fundraiser
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School privatization lobbyist outside Senate Education Committee meeting

Senate Bill 2168 gives charter schools an end-run around school boards that may not be charter friendly.

During the discussion of the bill, Metro School Board member Emily Masters tried to argue that charter schools are really not outperforming neighborhood schools, but the chairman cut her off.

In the end, the bill passed 6-to-2.

It is awaiting a vote in a House subcommittee.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Masters, "When you see what happened in the committee today, do you see the power of money?"

"Absolutely," she replied.

"It's a little frustrating to me to be perfectly honest that I was cut off when I was trying to talk about a comparison between our traditional public schools and our charter schools. And yet a charter school founder was allowed to go on and on."

Advocates insist they are responding to a real need, that it truly is about the kids.

But Amy Frogge worries about what happens if money continues to be diverted from those schools.

"The problem is that they are crippling the neighborhood traditional schools around them," Frogge said.

"You are opening the door to more privatization while you are shutting down the traditional public school system."

We asked, "And you think that is deliberate?"

"Absolutely," she insisted.

Gov. Bill Lee's proposal to revamp education funding, if it passes, would shift even more money into those types of schools.


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