NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A number of well-financed activist groups want to drastically change what school looks like in Tennessee, but what do Tennesseans think?
An internal poll from one of those groups, obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, reveals public schools are actually more popular than the politicians who want to change them. It also shows that Tennesseans strongly disagree with having the state impose charter schools on local districts — a system that Gov. Bill Lee has put in place in Tennessee.
The poll was commission by the Tennessee State Collaborative for Reforming Education (SCORE), a group that supports those taxpayer-funded, privately operated charter schools. It examines the strength of arguments against charter schools, while testing potentially winning messages to convince the public to support them.
Among the groups funding SCORE is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"This is absolute proof that they are trying to misrepresent charter schools to the people of Tennessee knowing the challenges that they face," said state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, who examined the report obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
David Leaverton, SCORE's senior director of advocacy, said the group "commissioned the survey at the end of the legislative session to better understand the views that Tennesseans, and in particular parents, have about public charter schools."
Among his takeaways:
- Public charter schools are viewed positively by Tennesseans.
- By nearly two-to-one, voters believe charter schools help improve public education rather than harm public education.
- Still, there continues to be some confusion and misperceptions about public charter schools and how they operate.
"That tells us there is still more work to do to make sure parents know Tennessee’s current charter schools are public schools - free and open to all students," Leaverton said via email.
Leaverton declined NewsChannel 5's request for an on-camera interview.
In fact, the SCORE poll shows public schools have a 68 percent favorability rating — higher than private schools, magnet schools and charter schools.
That 68 percent is higher than the favorability ratings for the governor (56 percent) and the legislature (45 percent).
Clemmons noted, "68 percent is a strong base of support for our public schools."
"People value public school teachers, and they want the best possible education for their child -- and they trust our public schools," the lawmaker continued.
The SCORE poll does show 51 percent are pessimistic about local public schools.
Clemmons wasn't surprised.
"It's easy for people not to have confidence in their public school system because they watch the state legislature and their governor underfund it year after year," he explained.
"And when you know that the state is underfunding your public school, you are not going to have much confidence in your school system -- and that is by design."
At the same time, the poll also shows a 'slippage' in support for those privately operated charter schools.
"The more people pay attention to how our schools are funded and how that money is being pulled out of their public school and given to private entities and they start to pay more attention, their approval for those private entities goes way down," Clemmons argued.
The poll was taken after Gov. Bill Lee announced a partnership with Michigan's ultraconservative Hillsdale College to open as many as 100 of their taxpayer-funded charter schools across Tennessee.
SCORE actually tested Hillsdale's image, finding that 90 percent had never heard of it at the time of the poll.
After the poll was when Hillsdale president Larry Arnn's remarks berating public school teachers drew near unanimous public outrage.
"So what I think they are going to have to do now is run another one of these polls to figure out how to distance themselves from their prize pig Hillsdale College -- and that's going to be really interesting watching them scramble," Clemmons said.
Following rejections from three different local school boards of Hillsdale's request to open charter schools in their districts, those Hillsdale schools have now appealed to a state charter school commission handpicked by the governor himself.
But SCORE's own poll shows that, by a nearly two-to-one margin, Tennesseans says those decisions should be made by the local school board and not the state, including an overwhelming majority of Republicans.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Clemmons, "When 62 percent of the people say these decisions should be made by the local school board, what does that say about the state charter commission?"
He answered: "A majority of Tennesseans don't agree with what they are doing and, if they really understood what was going on, they probably wouldn't have supported the fact that the commission was even created in the first place."
In addition, the SCORE poll tests various messages for and against charter schools.
"Many of the negatives hits tested against charter schools are persuasive," the poll concludes.
The strongest negative message: "Charter schools destabilize and dismantle public education for private profit. While traditional public schools struggle, charter school administrators often make incredibly high salaries and successfully lobby government officials for special perks, all on the taxpayer's dime and to the detriment of the local school district."
The most persuasive positive message: "Not every student learns the same. Charter schools have flexibility to create a school culture that improves student performance and parent satisfaction."
Some of the messages tested by SCORE, if used, would face questions about their accuracy — namely, that charter schools "have smaller class sizes that offer more individualized attention" and they "are held to higher accountability than traditional public schools."
In fact, there is no guarantee of smaller class sizes, and charter schools often are exempted from some of the requirements imposed on traditional public schools.
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