In 2002, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Tennessee Charter School Act, which legalized charter schools for the first time in the history of the state.
Charter schools largely exist so private, for-profit companies can extract taxpayer money from the public educational system. Every charter that opens steals money from already strapped public schools. Charters also have a long history of stripping away basic protections from teachers, screening out special needs students, and even expelling and pushing out students prior to state-mandate tests so their own scores can stay artificially high. They are also notoriously difficult to close down once they open. Charter schools and vouchers are policies peddled by the business community to advance their bottom line, not the interests of students.
At the time charter schools were legalized in Tennessee, J.C. Bowman – the current director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) – was the “Director of Education Policy” for the Tennessee Institute for Public Policy, a “free market think tank” that publicly advocated for vouchers, charter schools and terminating the collective bargaining rights of teachers. The Tennessee Institute for Public Policy was later replaced with the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which has continued to advocate for those same policies and continues to work closely with PET under Bowman’s leadership.
While acting as Director of Education Policy, Bowman organized a group called Education Policy in Action. The group had a Yahoo listserv that is available for public viewing online.
Bowman used the group to push heavily for charter school legislation to pass in Tennessee. He circulated pro-charter school editorials, provided legislative updates on this status of charter school legislation and even helped to pass along talking points for why teachers unions – who Bowman repeatedly mocked for being the strongest opponent to charters and vouchers – should be denied collective bargaining in Tennessee.
Bowman even wrote a call to action, requesting that pro-charter activists support the final version of the 2002 legislation even if they didn’t get everything that they wanted. Namely, Bowman wanted the state legislature to legalize explicitly for-profit charter schools in Tennessee:
While the proposed bill is less than perfect, it certainly puts Tennessee in the Charter School game. If US Representative Van Hilleary wins the
Governor’s race we will be in position to make any needed changes, as he is a strong Charter School advocate. If Phil Bredesen wins the race, we are guaranteed he will not work to strengthen any Charter bill since he opposes Charter Schools nor is he likely to introduce legislation. He will certainly have heavy teacher union support. I suggest we face an “all or nothing” battle here in Tennessee in the next two months, which will have a shelf life of four plus years. It is okay to be critical of the bill, for not having a “for profit” element and other provisions, such as start-up costs. But it is a fairly decent bill. Commissioner Faye Taylor has done an excellent job to get us to this point. We are indebted to her strong leadership. Governor Sundquist has been consistently supportive of Charter School legislation. Many political pundits speculated the bill would die an easy death, now many people feel it has an excellent shot at passage. We are working on limited time, we need support at this point on a national
scale with laser like precision, and help or suggestions are welcome and needed. Please ask your supporters in Tennessee to join with us and contact their legislative leaders to support Charter Schools. We can pass Charter legislation in Tennessee this year, but we will need alot of help and support to guarantee a good bill.
J. C. Bowman
Director of Education Policy
Tennessee Institute for Public Policy
Telephone: 615-327-3120 x 103
In other Education Policy in Action posts, Bowman also pushes for readers to support eliminating the cap on charter schools and for legislation that would allow the state to take over any public schools that were deemed to be “failing” and turn them over to a charter school operator. Bowman also supported the creation of a state-wide charter authorizer, stripping approval of charter schools from local school boards. Remarkably, Bowman also supported removing any requirements mandating that charter school teachers have a teaching certificate or be licensed to teach by the state! Many of these proposals would later come to be a reality under Governor Haslam. You can read his support for these policies on the listserv here.
The Yahoo listserv ends with Bowman announcing that he was leaving the Tennessee Institute for Public Policy to join the Jeb Bush administration in Florida:
I believe Education Policy in Action has been a huge success. However, I have now left the Tennessee Institute for Public Policy. I am joining Governor Jeb Bush’s staff in Tallahassee next week. I am honored to be selected for this
opportunity. I believe Florida is on the cutting edge of education reform in America. I am very excited to be part of this great challenge.
While in Florida, Bowman would oversee the first state-wide voucher program in the country as the “Director of School Choice in Florida.” Bowman would later brag about his time there, saying:
“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.”
At every step of the way, Bowman continued to recognize that it was the teachers union that continued to be the single greatest threat to his school choice program. While advocating for passage of the Tennessee Charter School Act of 2002, Bowman wrote:
Well-to-do Americans across the rest of the nation already have choice by private means. All Americans, especially the poor, would benefit from educational choice. Students in failing schools most assuredly should be given an option out of the system. Opposition to school choice most often does not arise out of concern for children attending public schools. In fact
most hostility comes from organizations and people who have a financial stake directly tied to the current system.
The current education monopoly, in which state and public school bureaucracies assign all tax funds without parental choice should be
scrutinized for effectiveness. Schools that perform poorly under the current system are not penalized, in fact they usually get additional
funding. Bureaucrats continue to assign children to failing schools.
The vested interests of teacher unions, special interest groups and local and state bureaucracies can scarcely afford a change in public policy that would end their monopoly advantage over public schools and put them in a competitive and comparative environment.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone then that the very first legislative priority that Bowman undertook after being appointed the Director of PET was to join forces with the same right-wing, corporate-funded, anti-union and pro-privatization groups that he has always to actively lobby for the passsage of a state law outlawing the collective bargaining rights of teachers in Tennessee.
Don’t let PET take you for a ride. Help to get the word out in your schools and communities. The Professional Educators of Tennessee are just another right-wing astro-turf organization that exists to advance the corporate takeover of public education in the state.