Two new conservative organizations have joined the conversation around politics and policy in Hamilton County - and they're taking a hard look at education.
Organizers for the Good Government Coalition and its newly formed political action committee and Hamilton Flourishing say they formed in response to UnifiEd - an education advocacy organization - and efforts last year to increase property tax rates for public education.
UnifiEd, which launched in 2014 with the backing of the Benwood, Footprint and Maclellan foundations, has been an active player in Hamilton County politics and education efforts.
Over the years, it has hosted community meetings and school board debates, conducted research, created the Pact for Public Education and the sometimes controversial Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) report, and formed its own PAC to endorse candidates.
Though UnifiEd has never identified itself as a partisan organization, it has worked to elect Democratic candidates to the Hamilton County Commission and the school board.
In 2018, the UnifiEd Action PAC spent at least $30,000 on county commission and mayor races, including contributions to David Sharpe's campaign for the District 6 county commissioner seat and Jim Coppinger's mayoral race. That same year, then-executive director of UnifiEd Jonas Barriere confirmed that all but one of the 10 school board candidates for seats in Districts 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 sat down with the group, seeking its endorsement.
For members of Hamilton Flourishing and the Good Government Coalition, the county commission's 5-4 vote last summer against a property tax rate increase for Hamilton County Schools' $443 million budget request was a close call.
"UnifiEd forced us to look at what's really going on in the education system in Hamilton County," said Doug Daugherty, president of Hamilton Flourishing. "People just don't know what's going on. They're dropping their kids off at school and you assume they're going to get an education and you'll pick them up in 10-12 years and everything will be done, and that's just not the way it works. Our mission is to pursue the well-being of Hamilton County and Chattanooga by advocating effective public policy, so we've picked a few things that we think are really important."
Good Government Coalition co-founder Tom Decosimo, a local businessman, agreed.
"We found that what we thought UnifiEd was was really, quite frankly, more of an activist group that was trying to flip the county from red to blue," Decosimo said at a Jan. 9 meeting with the Times Free Press. He was also a co-founder and board member of Hamilton Flourishing, but he stepped down to lead the Good Government Coalition. "We found that this group had worked hard to elect certain members to the school board and the county commission that would in fact change the nature of our government. And we felt like they were trying to impose an ideology on Hamilton County that we are opposed to."
But UnifiEd's interim Executive Director Walton Robinson noted that last year's budget increase attempt had a lot of bipartisan support from various parts of the community, including seven of the school board members, County Mayor Jim Coppinger, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and dozens of business leaders and the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, among others.
Asked to respond to Hamilton Flourishing and the Good Government Coalition's characterizations of UnifiEd's agenda, Robinson reiterated that UnifiEd is not a partisan organization.
"We fundamentally believe that every student in Hamilton County should have the opportunity to attend an excellent public school - this is not a partisan goal, and UnifiEd is not a partisan organization," Robinson said in a statement. "The members that make up UnifiEd come from a wide range of backgrounds from every corner of Hamilton County. What brings them all together is the sincere belief that every student deserves the opportunity and the tools to realize their full potential."
Hubs for social services?
Members of both Hamilton Flourishing, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and Good Government Coalition, a political action committee that plans to financially support conservative candidates in local elections, have cited the desire to defend conservative values that differ from UnifiEd's efforts as an impetus for their formation.
Hamilton Flourishing, which marketed itself as a research institution when it formed in early 2019, is focused on a few specific issues, including advocating for education savings accounts - school vouchers that allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools - school choice and raising awareness about Hamilton County's dismal literacy rates, Daugherty said.
Good Government Coalition members are also outspoken against what they say is the current school district administration's attempts to turn schools into hubs for "social services."
Tina Benkiser, a local attorney, board member of the Tennessee Beacon Center and Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committeewoman, said during a Jan. 9 meeting with the Times Free Press that addressing social or behavioral problems, mental health and other issues addressed in the APEX report is not the responsibility of schools.
"When you look at the original institutions of society, they were strong families, government and strong communities. Historically, where we get into trouble is when one intuition tries to challenge the other one, and I think this is what we've begun to see happen in this particular case here," said Benkiser, who is also a lecturer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "At the end of the day, can children read? Can they write? Can they do math? Do they have critical thinking skills so they can be ready for jobs or higher education? That is what the education system is supposed to do - it is to prepare those children."
Hamilton Flourishing and the Good Government Coalition are intended to complement or work alongside each other, though the governance is entirely separate, Daugherty said.
Nonprofits cannot endorse candidates or contribute financially to political campaigns, but Decosimo co-founded Hamilton Flourishing before stepping down to lead the Good Government Coalition. Benkiser is now helping lead the Good Government Coalition's charge.
The organizations agree there are real societal issues in Chattanooga that lead to children coming to school unprepared to learn or be successful, but they argue that it's not the responsibility of the schools - or the taxpayers - to strengthen families at home.
Hamilton Flourishing's vice president of communications and community engagement, Patrick Hampton, has spoken out against some of Hamilton County Schools' work in inner-city schools, such as a controversial teacher training event in August 2019 some said was biased and inappropriate.
But Daugherty said the organization's goal is not to uproot the public education system.
"We don't want to take on the Hamilton County Department of Education. That's not our job, we don't know enough to do it," he said. "We want to educate the community, we want to stir things up."
'It matters who governs'
The Good Government Coalition's PAC will serve as the political endorsement agent and intends to address education, economic and other issues in Hamilton County by focusing on government leadership.
The group already has its sights on the four school board members up for re-election this year, including Districts 1, 2, 4 and 7, and wants to help change the "vacuum of leadership" it sees on the current nine-member board. Decosimo cited Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, as a prime example of the type of elected official the group hopes to endorse.
"Elections matter, and we found that out this past year. It matters who governs. We are an independent group - we're not Republicans or Democrats. We are a group of people that think Hamilton County has got to continue to live by its conservative and traditional values. We're going to help elect leaders who share those values," Decosimo said.
Coalition members said the group has a goal of raising at least $200,000 a year and had raised more than $70,000 as of its meeting with the Times Free Press in January.
Hamilton Flourishing might work with the Coalition and the PAC by conducting research or consulting experts on issues that relate to its own focus on literacy, school choice, joblessness and single parenting - issues that candidates up for endorsement might also consider important, Daugherty said.
In addition to the coalition's efforts to recruit, train and support ideal conservative candidates, Hamilton Flourishing hopes to advocate for specific public policy issues.
Hampton has his eyes set on educating the community about education savings accounts, school vouchers and parents' options when it comes to school choice.
He and Daugherty believe that a free market - a conservative philosophy typically favored by Republicans - will force competition and therefore increase the quality of educational opportunities.
Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Lee introduced school vouchers during the 2019 legislative session and will pilot the program in Nashville and Memphis starting this fall, but Hampton hopes to find out what the appetite is for such a program in Hamilton County and lobby state lawmakers.
"I think we have big ideas," Hampton said of what sets Hamilton Flourishing apart from the other organizations focused on education in Chattanooga. "I think our ideas are bigger than the other ideas. All of those organizations, how many of them are pushing for [education savings accounts]? Zero. Having parental control in Hamilton County is not something everyone else is talking about, so we are going to talk about these things."
The Good Government Coalition does not intend to be involved in issues outside of Hamilton County, members said, but it will be focused on 29 local races in the next three years including Hamilton County school board, county commission, Chattanooga City Council and mayoral races.