More school officials fight school choice with taxpayer money

More school officials fight school choice with taxpayer money

Tennessee Watchdog has identified six more school board members who used taxpayer money to fly to Washington, D.C., for what was essentially an outing to lobby against school choice.

Those six school board members traveled to a National School Boards Association conference that at least three other publications described as anti-school vouchers and anti-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. NSBA officials held the convention late last month, before the U.S. Senate confirmed DeVos.

As reported, Rutherford County School Board member Aaron Holladay also took the trip.

D.C. MEETUP: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (center) met with several school board members from Tennessee and discussed Betsy Devos and school choice (photo courtesy of Facebook).

D.C. MEETUP: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (center) met with several school board members from Tennessee and discussed Betsy Devos and school choice (photo courtesy of Facebook).

While in D.C., Holladay and four  other school board members met as a group with Tennessee Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee.

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One of those school board members, Jimmie Garland, of the Clarksville-Montgomery Board of Education, was explicit about his reasons for going.

“The NSBA meeting was a way for people to learn how to lobby their legislators,” Garland said.

“I’m totally against school vouchers. It’s another way to segregate our school system from the haves and have-nots. Betsy DeVos does not have any public education, and she knows nothing about the plight of the average citizen because she’s never had to deal with some of the things the average citizen has to go through.”

Garland said he and other school board members discussed school vouchers and DeVos while meeting Alexander.

Tennessee Watchdog asked Garland about the propriety of taking a trip — at taxpayer expense — to lobby against something some of those same taxpayers may want implemented.

“State legislators do this kind of thing all the time, not just the people in the school system,” Garland said.

Alicia Barker (photo courtesy of the Franklin Special Board of Education's website)

Alicia Barker (photo courtesy of the Franklin Special Board of Education’s website)

“The people who are against what we did are the ones who want to take public dollars out of public schools.”

As reported, Murfreesboro’s Daily News Journal says Holladay warned Alexander about DeVos at that meeting.

No formal position

All of the school board members interviewed said they opposed school choice and DeVos as Education secretary.

They said the timing of their arrival in D.C. — as DeVos was in confirmation hearings — was a mere coincidence and that the convention was scheduled years ago.

Tim Stillings, of the Franklin Special Board of Education, said no one “directly relayed concerns about vouchers or DeVos to Alexander because we didn’t have time to discuss individual points.”

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Bob Alvey, of the Jackson-Madison County Board of Education, said he and other school board members only discussed special education funding with Alexander.

An article in Chalkbeat.org, however, said school members specifically discussed school choice with Alexander and that the senator assured them “vouchers won’t be crammed down their throats.”

As for the NSBA conference, Inside Sources said the organization’s intent was to get school board members “to lobby Congress on the group’s signature issues.” An NSBA video on the conference suggested the same thing.

Tim Stillings (photo courtesy of the Franklin Special Board of Education's website)

Tim Stillings (photo courtesy of the Franklin Special Board of Education’s website)

The Ferndale, Michigan-based Oakland County One-Fifteen News published a story by Karen Twomey, a local school board secretary who said the primary concern of the convention was charter schools.

“Due to complicated political dynamics, NSBA chose not to formally take a position on the nomination, as many other education organizations have,” Twomey wrote, suggesting, though, that many people wanted to speak out.

“Given the amounts of protests filling the city opposing Betsy DeVos, many conference goers felt uncomfortable in silence.”

The NSBA events included a symposium on what Alicia Barker, also of the Franklin Special Board of Education, called equity, or “bridging academic gaps between minorities and the majority.”

Barker said she didn’t meet with Alexander due to other commitments in Tennessee. Miska Clay Bibbs, of the Shelby County Board of Education, said she also did not meet with Alexander. The sixth school board member, Faye Heatherly, of the Campbell County Board of Education, didn’t return repeated requests for comment.

Information about how much each of the school members’ trips cost taxpayers wasn’t immediately available. Tennessee Watchdog has submitted open records requests to each of the five school districts.

Rutherford County School System officials have already turned over records showing Holladay’s trip cost taxpayers at least $1,100.

Update: After the publication of this story, Jackson-Madison County School System spokeswoman Ginger Carver said her school district did not sponsor or fund Alvey’s trip.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org

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