April 25, 2013 7:12 pm

Grassroots Report: How Tennessee Parents Stopped Vouchers

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Don’t Get Angry. Bake Cookies.

In December 2012, we–a small group of active public school parents–sat around a dining room table to discuss how we could combat the education reform bills we anticipated during the upcoming Tennessee state legislative session. We were very aware that we faced an uphill battle because Tennessee has become Ground Zero for education reform over the past few years. The Republican super-majority in both the state House and Senate appeared poised to pass a variety of corporate school reform bills. The fervor for this reform was fueled by our Governor, State Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman (Michelle’ Rhee’s ex-husband), Speaker of the House, Mayor of Nashville, and “part-time” Tennessee resident, Michelle Rhee. Reform groups from around the country, including Rhee’s StudentsFirst and the American Federation for Children, had descended on the state, bringing with them millions of dollars in campaign donations, ad buys, and lobbying cash. A total of 2 million dollars was spent on pushing the agenda of these outside reform groups.

This December meeting hatched a new statewide, nonpartisan organization called Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools. The founding members brought various talents and political views to the effort. We used our individual talents and viewpoints to formulate and disseminate a message that had broad appeal–” Less government, local control, fiscal restraint, help ALL TN children.” We also narrowed down our focus to fighting two specific bills–a voucher program and state charter authorizer. After several weeks of research and writing, we released a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account containing articles and data that supported our goals and overarching message. (On a side note, we heard through the social media rumor mill that some in the reform movement were a bit upset that they had to spend PR money to counter our message.) We found ourselves in the middle of the counter point to education reform initiatives.

Our next order of business was to make contact with Senate and House Education Committees members. We participated in a “Day on the Hill” at the Capitol and, because we didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars from special interest groups to give to legislators, we tried a little “southern sugar”–school bus-shaped cookies. We knew we had to influence key legislators, so ST4SCS attempted to share our concerns and to educate them on the public school parent perspective about reform. Although legislators had long heard from teachers, teacher unions, and school districts, meetings with active, well-informed parents came as a total surprise to many at the Capitol. Legislators often dismiss concerns voiced by teachers, administrators, and school districts as self-serving and, ironically, not in the best interest of children. However, parents, upon whom legislators could pin no possible ill motives, were an entirely different matter. How could they refuse to listen to parents? We were key stakeholders in the education conversation and they did listen to what we had to say.

We learned how to follow online committee agendas and our bills’ paths with the Tennessee government website. Throughout the session we blogged about upcoming meetings and the status of the bills–providing sample letters and the contact information for key members of committees. We also started online petitions through Change.org that sent emails to specific legislators each time a person signed. During key committee meetings, we organized key individuals to speak when possible. We also tried to send out live tweets and Facebook posts updating our members on these meetings. (When we could not attend, we watched the meetings on live video feeds via the internet.) Our goal was to become the online source for information about the charter authorizer bill and vouchers.

As word continued to spread about our advocacy group, some of our members were interviewed for TV news reports, newspaper articles, and radio news segments. We also began connecting with other like-minded groups and individuals across the state and nation and, as a result, some of our posts were featured on national blogs. More concerned and committed parents signed on to help. Some members also spoke at a variety of organizations around the state and we hope to continue do so throughout the summer because these education reform issues will be back in 2014.

Vouchers were killed as a result of Republican party infighting and the statewide charter authorizer died on the final day of the legislature due to a disagreement between the Senate and the House. Bottom line: Even though other factors outside of our control ultimately killed the bills, we feel very strongly that our efforts made enough legislators question them so they did not roll through without questions and opposition. We plan to continue educating Tennesseans and legislators about the realities of these bills. And we will be at the Capitol in 2014 when they come up again. We aren’t finished yet…

Lessons learned:
1) Educate. Educate. Educate.
2) Stick to the facts.
3) Stay polite and well intentioned.
4) Create alliances.
5) Use social media!
6) Never underestimate your power to change the world.
7) Come bearing cookies!