'Student Success' group spending big money to defend Gov. Bill Haslam

'Student Success' group spending big money to defend Gov. Bill Haslam

February 19th, 2015 by Andy Sher in Politics State

Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his annual State of the State address to the Tennessee Legislature in Nashville in this Feb. 9, 2015, file photo.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- A new advocacy group with deep pockets and close ties to Gov. Bill Haslam is spending big bucks defending his stance on maintaining Tennessee's K-12 education standards, Federal Communications Commission television station filings show.

Since Dec. 29, Tennesseans for Student Success, a nonprofit group headed by Haslam's 2014 campaign manager, Jeremy Harrell, has spent $137,000 broadcasting a 30-second spot in the Nashville and Knoxville media markets, according to a Times Free Press review of Tennessee-based television stations' political advertising files.

The ad even aired on Nashville NBC affiliate WSMV-TV during the Super Bowl.

The spot features a series of teachers and parents saying, "We have the fastest-improving schools in the nation. Yet some politicians want to drag us back to the days of lower standards, less accountability and fewer choices for parents. And that's why they need to hear from us."

The group, which has at least six staffers, has also hired seven lobbyists, including three principals at top-flight firm McMahan and Winstead, state Ethics Commission filings show.

The aggressive effort comes in the midst of a push by legislative critics to roll back or replace the state's Common Core standards. For his part, Haslam is seeking public input with an eye toward putting more of a Tennessee thumbprint on the national standards for English language arts and math.

Haslam says the standards were key to Tennessee students having made the fastest learning gains of any state in the nation in 2013.

But conservative critics attack Common Core, which began as a states-led effort but later was embraced by President Barack Obama, as federal "overreach."

In August GOP primaries last year, the Tennessee affiliate of Americans for Prosperity, a national group with ties to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, spent untold sums of money on radio ads attacking Common Core.

"As one of the most conservative states in the country, Tennessee should take the lead in setting its own education standards, stopping the federal overreach that is Common Core," Tennessee-AFP said in one ad. "Just like ObamaCare, Common Core is a Trojan horse for the federal government to take over state budgets."

Tennesseans for Student Success has adopted the motto that "Going Backwards is Unacceptable."

Harrell said the group's purpose is "to protect the gains made in public education throughout Tennessee."

"The education gains we've made in recent years are worth celebrating, worth defending and worth continuing," he added.

In an email, Harrell said the group has run cable ads "in all major markets" including Chattanooga, Memphis and the Tri-cities, as well as radio ads. He did not specify a dollar amount when asked. The group also has sent direct mail into some districts.

As for who is funding the effort, Harrell said, "People who care very deeply about improving student achievement in Tennessee, and want to continue to build on the progress we've made."

Asked whether Haslam sanctions the group's activities, Haslam spokesman David Smith said by email that "Tennesseans for Student Success is an independent organization that supports continued education gains in Tennessee."

The FCC filings show Tennesseans for Student Success is spending about $126,000 in Nashville through Feb. 22. The group spent just over $11,000 in Knoxville from Jan. 19-25.

Last year, state lawmakers forced a one-year postponement of tests associated with Common Core. The governor abandoned the PARRC test it planned to use and has contracted with another firm to develop a new one.

Haslam's effort to address lawmakers' concerns over Common Core standards includes a website where the administration says it has fielded more than 80,000 comments, critiques and suggestions for altering the standards. Plans call for those to be reviewed by Tennessee teachers and experts with an eye toward making changes and, ultimately, taking them before the State Board of Education.

Some lawmakers have vowed to repeal the Common Core standards.

In his State of the State address to lawmakers last week, Haslam said, "We're going to talk about state standards this session, and I think it is important that we know exactly what the standards are that we're talking about and possibly voting on.

"To me," Haslam added, "it doesn't really matter what we call our standards. What does matter is that we have the highest standards possible. What does matter is that we continue to have high expectations for our students, teachers and this state. We can come up with Tennessee standards that allow our students to compete with anyone in the world."

Lawmakers have introduced various bills on the issue. At least one would repeal the use of Common Core standards. Two others would use statute to create a different review process. One would create a new nine-member commission to review standards, with the governor making three appointments and the House and Senate speakers each making three.

Another, sponsored by Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens, a retired McMinn County schools superintendent, would include parents on the review panels and also implement firm deadlines. Sponsors of the Forgety bill include House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

But Harrell's group is opposing the Forgety bill, which was postponed last week at the request of a GOP colleague who said he had had an "epiphany" on the issue and wanted to discuss it further with Forgety.

Forgety said Wednesday that discussion has yet to occur.

"My bill has been in the making since June," Forgety said, noting the administration's effort began in October.

He shrugged when asked about the Tennesseans for Student Success ads.

"I haven't seen any of the ads," he said. "I thought the process should be up to the education community and the parents of public schoolchildren."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.