In Memphis, where efforts to improve schools are helping to reshape the city, at least six candidates running in contested races for the Tennessee House of Representatives are attracting money from groups and individuals with education policy goals.
The candidates, all of whom are running in the Democratic primary election on Thursday, received tens of thousands of dollars from political action committees attached to advocacy organizations including Tennessee Federation for Children and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, according to campaign finance disclosure reports released late last week by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
And one candidate, Tami Sawyer, has attracted the financial support of high-profile individuals including Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.
Keith Williams, a pastor who testified this year at the state Capitol in favor of school vouchers, is running for the District 85 seat against incumbent Johnnie Turner, a former Memphis teacher who has voted against vouchers.
In District 90, which stretches from Frayser and North Memphis to South Memphis, Teach For America community organizer Tami Sawyer is running against incumbent John DeBerry, perhaps the legislature’s most vocal proponent of vouchers. Sawyer, who has called for “comprehensive public education reform,” said she does not have a position on vouchers at this time.
And in District 98, Johnnie Hatten, a leader with the parent group called Memphis Lift, which is tied to the Achievement School District, is facing off against Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a vocal critic of the state-run school turnaround district who has advocated for stemming its expansion. The district includes Raleigh and parts of Bartlett and North Memphis.
Williams, Hatten and DeBerry all have the backing of political action committees attached to advocacy groups including the Tennessee Federation for Children and StudentsFirst Tennessee, which aim to increase school choice options across the state, particularly in the form of vouchers. Williams also has received $5,000 from his employer, Campaign for School Equity, formerly known as the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options. Those candidates also have benefitted from thousands of dollars worth of mailers and advertisements paid for by those group. Tennessee Federation for Children, for example, has spent about $27,000 on materials supporting DeBerry, $15,000 on materials supporting Williams, $17,000 on materials opposing Turner, Williams’ opponent.
In separate statements, Tennessee Federation for Children and StudentsFirst said they chose to support candidates based on their qualifications in education, deep ties to the community, and openness to school choice policies, including vouchers, that the organizations believe will improve educational opportunities in Memphis. A proposal to offer private school tuition vouchers to low-income students has divided the legislature for almost a decade and this year advanced the farthest it’s ever come before fizzling on the House floor.
On the other hand, Turner and Parkinson have received relatively small amounts from the state teacher union’s political action committee in recognition of their stances against vouchers and their cautious approach to expanding the ASD.
Sawyer hasn’t garnered support from education advocacy organizations, but she has received small donations from individuals involved in Memphis education such as Hopson.
She hasn’t taken stances on the most high-profile education issues. “What I can promise is that I will make the most learned, well-versed decision that I can,” Sawyer said. “It will be based on what people say, not what an organization tells me to do.”
Despite differences in opinion and funding, many of the candidates agree that advocating for Memphis’ schools goes beyond issues of vouchers or the ASD.
“There’s just so much more that we need to discuss about what the state can do for education than just passing vouchers,” Sawyer said. “Vouchers will just have such little impact — you can’t say you’re an education candidate and that’s your only concern.”
Parkinson says most issues ultimately are education issues because so many factors — employment, criminal justice, health — are connected with schools.
“Our constituents want equity and opportunity,” said Parkinson, who has served in the House since 2011. “It’s all connected to poverty, to be totally honest with you.”
Primary races and the vote for school board will be held on Thursday, with the general election on Nov. 8.
Here are the education-related contributions to House candidates in primary races for Districts 85, 90 and 98.
Note: Campaign contributions from individuals are not made on behalf of their employers.
Education-related donors: Campaign for School Equity, $6,000
Total contributions as of 7/28: $6,000
Percent of contributions related to education: 100 percent
Education-related donors: Tennessee Education Association, $6,227
Total contributions as of 7/28: $9,575
Percent of contributions related to education: 65 percent
Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County Schools superintendent, $100
Shante Avant, Shelby County school board member, $200
Miska Bibbs, Shelby County school board member, $150
Ashanta Blackwell, employed by Teach For America, $100
Lesley Brown, employed by Teacher Town Memphis, $1,400
Erika Conley, employed by Teach For America, $100
Tosha Downey, employed by Teacher Town Memphis, $250
Gavin Mosley, Shelby County Schools teacher, $200
Annetra Peete, employed by Teach For America Memphis, $100
Ruby Powell Dennis, employed by Teach For America Memphis, $200
Sylvia Saracino, employed by Teach For America, $100
Total contributions as of 7/28: $13,179.53
Percent of contributions related to education: 4.5 percent
Amount of contributions: N/A
Education related donors: N/A
Education-related donors: Campaign for School Equity, $5,000
Total contributions as of 7/28: $5,100
Percent of contributions related to education: 98 percent
Education-related donors: TEA, $2,500
Total contributions as of 7/28: $15,385.06
Percent of contributions related to education: 16 percent
Education-related PAC spending in the District 90, 98 and 85 races
(Note: Political action committees can spend unlimited funds on campaign materials, so long as they don’t “coordinate” with candidates; thus, not all money reported by expenditures by PACs are reported by candidates as contributions.)
PAC: Tennessee Federation for Children
$10,793 on materials opposing Antonio Parkinson
$14,351 on materials opposing Johnnie Turner
$27,696 on materials supporting John DeBerry
$11,501 materials supporting Johnnie Hatten
$15,269 supporting Keith Williams
PAC: Tennessee Education Association Fund for Parents and Children
Spending related to races in this story:
$2,500 direct contribution to Antonio Parkinson
$3,000 direct contribution to Johnnie Turner
PAC: Tennesseans for Putting Students First
Spending related to races in this story:
$5,000 direct contribution to Keith Williams
$5,000 direct contribution to Johnnie Hatten
PAC: Education Reform Now Advocacy
Spending related to races in this story: $5,000 direct contribution to Johnnie Hatten
PAC: Leadership for Educational Equity
Spending related to races in this story: $1,250 direct contribution to Tami Sawyer
Clarification: Aug. 1, 2016: This story has been updated to clarify that campaign contributions from individuals are not made on behalf of their employers.