The Beacon Center is a Koch-funded “free market think,” a member of the ALEC aligned State Policy Network and one of the largest and most outspoken advocates of vouchers in Tennessee.
The Beacon Center has spent this legislative session advocating hard for voucher legislation, which would defund public schools by allowing parents to use tax-payer money to send their children to unregulated and unaccountable private schools.
The Beacon Center has also been active this session in advocating for legislation that would make it unlawful for teachers to have their union dues deducted from their paychecks. This legislation is model ALEC legislation, pursued for the purpose of weakening public sector workers, like teacher unions, which are committed to protecting public education from the corporate free market reformers. The Beacon Center is fixated with passing legislation that would silence the voices of teachers, because the union has been on the legislative frontlines, beating back voucher legislation year after year.
The Beacon Center knows that the union can’t match the flood of money coming into Tennessee from out-of-state corporate front groups and so they are using their political influence to try and weaken the union’s greatest strength: it’s membership. That is why Justin Owen, the executive director of the Beacon Center recently wrote that the Beacon Center was supporting legislation that would outlaw the practice, which has been around for decades, of allowing teachers to have their dues deducted from their paychecks. “For years,” Owen laments, “the unions have called the shots on Capitol Hill when it comes to education in our state.” For Owen, the days of teachers being recognized as the experts on education policy should be long over – education policy should instead be left to business leaders and lawyers like himself.
J.C. Bowman, the executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, has a history of collaborating with Justin Owen and the Beacon Center. The Beacon Center and PET collaborated together to lobby for the repeal of the collective bargaining rights of teachers in Tennessee. Bowman and Owen collaborated on an editorial attacking the union organizing drive at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, they collaborated on editorials calling for teachers to drop their union membership, and now they both agree that the state should outlaw dues deductions for teachers.
Owen has written that “even though there are now numerous professional associations for teachers to join, many local school districts pick and choose which can and can’t benefit from payroll deduction” and that “this arbitrary picking of winners and losers represents yet another reason to eliminate the practice.” Far from “picking winners and losers,” many school systems require organizations to meet membership thresholds, typically about 15% of the personnel, before agreeing to collect dues from the paychecks of their employees. The simple fact of the matter is that PET is unable to meet these thresholds because they are unpopular among teachers, who are increasingly aware of how PET’s executive director is a long-time proponent of privatization and that the organization has used their dues money to lobby against their rights.
Speaking before the Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee in support of the Beacon Center’s legislation to ban dues deductions, Bowman parroted the claims made by the Beacon Center. “I would like to have payroll deduction in all 141 districts,” Bowman told the committee. “If you can grant that today I’m absolutely in favor of that. If you can’t do that, I think we have a problem.”
All across the United States, from Chicago to Jefferson County to Nashville, we see how the greatest fightback to the corporate takeover of public schools has come from teachers who are organized in their schools, in their communities, and at the ballot box. The greatest obstacle between the privatizers and our schools are teacher unions. PET shares deep institutional and ideological connections with the corporate education reform movement, as made clear by their partnership with groups like the Beacon Center. By dividing teachers in the schools and advocating for legislation attacking teacher unions, PET is intentionally undermining the largest and most politically organized opposition to the corporate reformers and their privatization agenda.