One of the biggest players in the long-term agenda to demoralize teachers and defund, dismantle and privatize public education in Tennessee is the Professional Educators of Tennessee, or PET, which might come as a shock to some of their members. After all, PET bills itself as an innocuous member-run business: a “non-union, professional educators’ organization” that “offers a premium package of benefits including exceptional legal protection and liability coverage.” In the past, organizations like PET would have been called “yellow unions”: organizations that claim to represent the interests of workers while actually advancing the company’s agenda.
To expose just how yellow of a union PET actually is, we need only look as far as PET’s Executive Director, J.C. Bowman.
Bowman Oversaw the Largest Private Voucher Program in the Country
In the late 1990s, Bowman became the President of the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF), a mini-voucher system that provided money from extreme right-wing, pro-privatization donors, such as the Walton family, to public school students so they can attend private schools.
According to Bowman, the mission of this program was to make “the excellence of private school education available” to students at “failing government schools” by providing parents with the ability to make “educational choices for their children, whether through private philanthropy or taxpayer initiatives.”
According to the pro-privatization Heritage Foundation, in 1999, the CSF was the “largest private scholarship program in the country” and paid for over 500 students to leave Chattanooga public schools for private schools.
Bowman’s work was used by nationally syndicated right-wing commentators to argue for how vouchers and charter programs could successfully break the “government education monopoly.” Speaking as the president of CSF, Bowman delivered a speech in Chattanooga entitled “Public School Problems/Private Solutions,” in which he bashed teachers and their unions for standing in the way of voucher legislation and echoed the malicious talking points that public school advocates now associate with the likes of Michelle Rhee and Scott Walker, stating that:
“We have listened to the empty rhetoric of the teachers unions, their broken promises to taxpayers, parents and teachers. We are aware of their inability to move past their own selfish self-interest. We are tired of incompetent teachers being in our classrooms, protected by tenure laws and teacher unions.”
– J.C. Bowman
Acting as CSF president, Bowman also penned one of the longest defenses of vouchers that you are likely to find anywhere. Bowman’s defense of privatizing Tennessee’s public schools is so intense that it would likely make the Koch brothers weep with joy :
“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
The Chattanooga Times Free Press quoted Bowman as stating that his mini-voucher program was “proof that the public wants choice and is unsatisfied with the quality of public schools.”
The CSF website provided a list of school choice organizations, resources and allies. One particular organization is of particular interest in this list: the Professional Educators of Tennessee.
What was Bowman’s job prior to leading the mini-voucher program in Chattanooga? According to his CSF president bio: From 1992-1998 he served as Director of Government Relations for the Professional Educators of Tennessee.
So, Bowman seamlessly left his job as the lead lobbyist for PET to pursue a career as a hired gun for the corporate takeover of public schools and then seamlessly moved into his job as the Executive Director of PET.
Bowman Was Appointed by Jeb Bush to Oversee the Florida Voucher Program
Following his time spent heading the mini-voucher program in Tennessee, Bowman was appointed by Governor Jeb Bush to be the Director of School Choice and oversee the first statewide voucher program in the nation. This program transferred millions of dollars from the taxpayers of Florida to private schools, including for-profit charter schools, and was mired in so many corruption scandals that the Palm Beach Post ran headlines labeling the program a “massive corruption scheme.”
Bowman has publicly bragged about how big the privatization program he directed in Florida was, 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
In fact, Bowman is so proud of his time spent working under Bush (who loathes public school systems and prefers to describe the United States as having “over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions”) that to this day he even boasts of his time spent privatizing Florida’s public schools on his Twitter profile, after first acknowledging his work in Tennessee as the Executive Director of PET:
Bowman Co-Authored A Paper Advocating Exponential Charter School Growth with John Danner, One of the Leading Proponents of the For-Profit Privatization of Public Education in the Country
“The Promise and Perils of Charter Schools” is a long, tedious essay detailing what J.C. Bowman and John Danner believe are successful strategies for privatizing Tennessee’s public schools. The primary focus of the paper is the creation of a “critical mass of charter schools” which “will force school districts to change their own educational practices in order to compete.” To reach this critical mass, the paper promotes many proposals that will be familiar to anyone who follows education policy in Tennessee, as many of them have been either floated or passed into law since the Republican supermajority took over the Tennessee General Assembly and J.C. Bowman became the Executive Director of PET.
Among the proposals that Bowman and Danner advocate for achieving a “critical mass of charter schools” are:
- The removal of any state-wide cap on charter schools
- Shifting the power to authorize charter schools from local school boards to state authorizers (such as the state board of education)
- A heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing as a mechanism for the state to “reconstitute” so-called “failing schools” as charter schools
- Removing certification requirements for teachers in charter schools
- The elimination of collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions.
What about that co-author?
Well, John Danner is exactly the kind of person you would expect to be working hand-in-glove with J.C. Bowman. Danner is the former Chairman of the Charter School Resource Center of Tennessee, founding director of KIPP Academy Nashville and co-founder of the infamous Silicon Valley financed Rocketship charter school chain, which promotes the elimination of certified teachers in schools through heavy reliance on computer labs and instructional software, low-cost inexperienced Teach for America recruits on short term contracts, and a significantly narrowed curriculum with a relentless focus on teaching to the test (you can read detailed studies on Rocketship’s disastrous corporate approach to education HERE and HERE).
The paper was written in 2002, so it is interesting to read the bio that J.C. Bowman provides about himself at the end: A former public school teacher, he served as the Director of Government Relations for the Professional Educators of Tennessee, developing legislative priorities, evaluating existing education policies, and coordinating political activities with legislators.
Makes you wonder what PET’s “legislative priorities” might have been while J.C. Bowman was lobbying on their behalf.
What did Bowman go on to do later? He became the Executive Director of PET. What was his legislative priority then? To eliminate the collective bargaining rights of teachers.
PET Continues to Partner with Anti-Union and Pro-Voucher Groups in Tennessee
Bowman, acting as PET’s Executive Director, has also regularly co-authored anti-union editorials with the Beacon Center’s Executive Director Justin Owen, attacking not only teacher unions, but attempts by the UAW to organize factory workers in Chattanooga. The Beacon Center is a Koch-funded “free market think,” is a member of the ALEC aligned and Koch funded State Policy Network and one of the largest and most outspoken advocates of vouchers in Tennessee. The State Policy Network’s July/August 2013 newsletter featured information on the activities of all the Network’s state affiliates across the country and proudly championed the annual Beacon Center and PET alliance to attack teacher unionization.
To give you an idea of the scope of the Beacon Center’s recent privatization efforts, just look at their 2013 “school choice” campaign, which aimed at gaining state-wide support for vouchers with a focus on parents, community leaders and politicians in Memphis and Nashville. During this campaign, the Beacon Center:
- Ran a series of radio and television commercials in support of voucher legislation.
- Launched a single-issue website dedicated to promoting vouchers and “school choice”.
- Produced propaganda materials that attempted to obscure the fact that the legislation being introduced in Nashville was ALEC’s cookie-cutter, model voucher legislation.
To this very day, PET continues to align itself with the Beacon Center and to work collaboratively with them in attacking teacher unions (see HERE, HERE and HERE), while the Beacon Center continues to also push for legislation that would dismantle and privatize Tennessee’s public schools. Their partnership does not end there either, both are the Tennessee representatives to a national coalition of pro-privatization and anti-union corporate front groups that works to advance “free market reforms” through weakening their central opposition: organized workers.