July 10, 2022

Ian Round: How pro-charter school tech billionaires quietly influence state government

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Ian Round, writing for the Daily Memphian, is wondering just how far into the operations of Tennessee education the Chiefs for Change have gotten.

Secrecy surrounding a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is explaining and promoting the governor’s massive overhaul of school funding in the state is causing some concern among certain lawmakers.

Chiefs for Change was founded in 2010 by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and 2016 Republican presidential primary candidate. Many of its members are power players in the school choice and charter school movements.

The arrangement between the Tennessee Department of Education and the group is unclear as the organization and the state have provided few details.

“If there’s a corporation or billionaire with very specific policy aims underwriting the government, we have a right to know who that is,” said state Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) in an interview.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn is one of two members of the group in Tennessee out of 50 across the country; Tennessee’s other member is the former superintendent of Hamilton County Schools and no longer works in education (he did not respond to a request for comment).

The Tennessee Department of Education enlisted the help of the group to assist with Gov. Bill Lee’s and Schwinn’s school funding overhaul, which Lee signed into law in early May.

The state government is not paying Chiefs for Change, and they have not signed a contract.

No one will say exactly what Chiefs for Change is doing, who decides what work they do, whether that work is satisfactory, or how much it’s worth. Without a formal contract, it’s unclear what the terms are.

It receives much of its funding from tech billionaires who support charter schools; it’s one example of how some of the world’s wealthiest people quietly influence state and local governments.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it’s tax-exempt. But its activities toe the line between regular charitable services and lobbying, of which 501(c)(3)s are allowed to do very little.

Read the full article here.

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