A Nashville education advocacy group has put money into two board races for Shelby County Schools.
TennesseeCAN spent more than $26,000 on behalf of candidate Michelle Robinson McKissack for mailed advertisements, phone calls, and texts in late June, according to the group’s disclosure forms.
The group also sent an endorsement letter to Shante Avant and contributed $3,000 to her campaign last week, said the organization’s spokeswoman.
The contribution to McKissack’s campaign is an increase from last fall to any single candidate, when the group contributed $29,000 among 40 lawmakers across Tennessee. They included Memphis-area legislators Raumesh Akbari, John DeBerry, Brian Kelsey, Reginald Tate, and Mark White, all of whom have worked on education-related bills.
The contribution is also the largest given to any candidate in the school board races so far. It is one of the few contributions coming from outside Memphis.
The advocacy group has sought to expand charter schools, and has pushed for A-F letter grades for schools, which it says gives parents an easy-to-understand system for evaluating school quality.
But since starting its advocacy work in the state in 2011, TennesseeCAN has been best known for supporting vouchers that would allow state money to pay for private school tuition as an option for students from low-income families. State lawmakers sought to pilot a program in Memphis, despite the fact that parents and policymakers in the city strongly opposed the measure. Vouchers could siphon off more than $18 million annually from public schools.
But McKissack and Avant oppose vouchers.
Avant declined to comment Friday because she had not received the donation and endorsement letter yet, but has said as recently as last month that she does not support “taking public dollars in order to pay for a private school education.”
McKissack, a board member for Crosstown High School, a new charter school opening this fall, said, “I am and have always been committed to public education. I have been clear and unwavering in stating that I do not support school vouchers.”
A spokeswoman for the advocacy group said they endorsed McKissack, a White Station High School graduate, “based on her credentials as a mom and strong education advocate.”
The organization’s political action committee, Tennesseans for Putting Students First, is funded by its national parent organization 50CAN in Washington D.C.
“It was as big a surprise for me to see the flyers in my mailbox as everyone else,” McKissack said.
Tennesseans For Putting Students First formed in 2016 after TennesseeCAN merged with the state’s chapter of StudentsFirst, an advocacy organization started by former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee. She is known for tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and for closing 23 low-performing schools.
The former StudentsFirst PAC ranked fifth in contributions to lawmakers and legislative candidates in 2012, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Contributors to the PAC this year include William DeLoache ($500) and John Eason ($100), who are board members for the Tennessee Charter School Center, the state’s advocacy organization for the publicly funded, privately managed schools.