The Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) have been a consistent advocate for the corporate takeover of public schools. For example, years ago, the executive director of PET, J.C. Bowman, was the director of a private voucher program in Tennessee that was intended to serve as a model for advancing statewide voucher legislation. Bowman publicly advocated for a full throttle privatization agenda, blasting public schools and their greatest defender: teacher unions.
“School choice, implemented through tuition scholarships and vouchers, is the only true education reform sufficiently aggressive to break the cycle of failing government schools, poverty and the pernicious cycle of dependency on government. This is particularly true in minority and low-income communities, where left wing education zealots and union operatives insist that minority and low-income children remain trapped in failing schools. Do not let the bureaucrats risk your child’s future. Show your support for school choice.”
– J.C. Bowman
Bowman’s private voucher initiative failed, but he went on to be appointed by Florida Governor Jeb Bush to be the “Director of School Choice” for the first statewide voucher program in the country.
Bowman has publicly bragged about his work privatizing Florida public schools, stating:
“I served the state of Florida as Director of School Choice, where I oversaw a groundbreaking voucher program, 2000 Private Schools, 230 Charter Schools, and 40,000 home school children.”
– J.C. Bowman
After being named the Executive Director of PET, Bowman quickly went to work with the Beacon Center of Tennessee – one of the leading right-wing voucher and charter advocacy organizations in the state – to attack teacher unions and lobby for the repeal of the collective bargaining rights of administrators, teachers and education support personnel. Collective bargaining allowed school district employees to negotiate contracts on a whole range of issues, including teacher evaluations, merit pay schemes, tenure, seniority, or transfers and reassignments, salaries, length of work day, insurance and other crucial working conditions. Bowman publicly stated that he wanted these rights completely repealed.
“We’d like to see collective bargaining rolled back, if not completely done away with” – J.C. Bowman
In the end, the law providing teachers with the right to collectively bargain was repealed and replaced with a much more limited law. Bowman recorded a video of himself bragging about his role in undermining the rights of teachers.
PET has continued to attack teacher unions while working alongside some of the leading proponents of privatization (see their continued collaboration with the Beacon Center to attack unions HERE, HERE and HERE). In the lead up to the current legislative session, PET leaders and staff worked alongside Steve Gill, a prominent pro-voucher consultant, and Bill Warner, a man identified as a right-wing extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks hate groups, to host public forums spreading anti-Muslim hate and lies about public education. It is very likely that these forums were organized for the purpose of creating a political environment conducive for the passage of voucher legislation in the state legislature.
Now, PET is actively lobbying for a law that would make it illegal in every school district across the state for teachers to have their union membership dues deducted from their paychecks.
PET is making an argument against dues deduction that is similar to one that they made while lobbying to repeal the collective bargaining rights of teachers in 2011: under the former collective bargaining law, an organization representing teachers was required to have 50% + 1 membership in the school district to begin the process of negotiating with the school board. PET has never been able to reach this membership threshold. So what did they do? They blew up collective bargaining. Now teachers are legally barred from negotiating contracts with language concerning testing, evaluations, tenure, reassignment and transfers and many other issues.
Similarly, many school boards around the state have set thresholds for an organization to be able to deduct dues from the paychecks of those employed by the school district. Typically, about 15% of the teachers have to be members of an organization for a school board to allow that organization to deduct dues from their paychecks. Once again, PET is not able to meet the minimum threshold in many school districts around the state.
In essence, PET is using the common right-wing, pro-privatization talking points about “freedom” and “choice” to push an anti-democracy agenda. They point to the fact that they are unwelcome in many schools and unpopular among many teachers as grounds to justify the tyranny of an extreme right-wing minority. If PET’s 5 members in a school district can’t be treated as absolutely equal to the union’s 500 members, then they want the state to punish those districts.
It shouldn’t escape our attention that PET’s attack on teacher union dues deductions comes after the union successfully defeated vouchers, again. Out-of-state corporate interest groups spent millions of dollars financing political campaigns and bankrolling their pro-privatization propaganda, just to be beaten back by the union.
Since 2011, PET has supported the repeal of teacher collective bargaining rights, worked alongside pro-voucher lobbyists like the Beacon Center and Steve Gill, as well as Bill Warner, a nationally prominent racist, to demonize teacher unions and Tennessee public schools. Now, after defeating vouchers and the big monied interest groups behind them, PET is leading the charge to have the state government outlaw the right of teachers to have their union dues deducted from their paychecks.
None of this should be surprising, given the decades that J.C. Bowman, PET’s executive director, has spent fighting to undermine teacher unions and advance the corporate takeover of public schools. What is surprising is that anyone would be a member of PET.