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Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute and principal Steve Perry were two panelists on a forum on school choice.

Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute and principal Steve Perry were two panelists on a forum on school choice.

G. Tatter

Koch panel advocates for vouchers, elimination of Common Core

A group of conservative scholars and a charter school principal pushed for vouchers and urged Tennesseans to be wary of the Common Core standards during a forum Tuesday.  The program, whose attendees included legislators, representatives from conservative think tanks, and parents opposed to the rapid expansion of charters in the city, was held by a non-profit funded by Charles Koch, the controversial and influential conservative billionaire. It gave insight into the type of initiatives in Tennessee and across the country he might back this upcoming legislative session.

“Nashville is an ideal place to have this important conversation,” said Brennan Brown, a representative from the Koch Foundation who moderated the discussion. “Tennesseans realize the important link between education and opportunity.”

Panelists included representatives from right-leaning think tanks like the Friedman Foundation and the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and the principal of a charter school in Connecticut.

Charles Koch and his brother David Koch are co-owners and founders of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States, and are known to be among the most influential Americans. The billionaire brothers spend millions each year on statewide and national political campaigns that often directly promote libertarian principles, and are credited with bringing their libertarian values into the mainstream. Recently, the brothers have gained notoriety for their venture into education philanthropy. Koch-funded organizations bankroll civics courses that “reinvigorate the teaching of America’s founding principles and history” at universities ranging from Harvard University to the College of Charleston, and economics courses in public high schools.

Panelist Steve Perry, the principal of  Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut, said that reformers in Tennessee not willing to support vouchers were merely offering “reform-lite.”

“What they want to do, is they want to say what’s most politically palatable,” he said. Earlier in the discussion, Perry said he was astounded Tennesseans had not managed to pass a voucher program, since the state has a Republican governor and a super-majority of Republicans in the legislature. Although most aspects of the expansion of school choice in Tennessee are bipartisan, vouchers’ most visible proponents in the state and nationwide have been Republican. Perry said people in the room should be doing more to make vouchers a reality.

“You say you’re for it, you say you want choice, yet you don’t pull the lever to make the choice happen,” he said.

He and other panelists thought vouchers were among the best tactics to provide low-income students with the same high-quality options as children from wealthier families.

Throughout the panel Stephanie Linn, the lobbyist for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, repeated that no research has shown vouchers negatively impact student achievement. “There is no study that’s ever shown kids were harmed [by school vouchers],” she said. In fact, research on vouchers has offered conflicting verdicts about their efficacy. Regardless, as Chalkbeat reported earlier this month, many predict school vouchers will pass in 2015.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown who sponsored the most expansive version of a voucher bill in 2013, attended the forum, as well as Rep. Steve McDaniels, a Republican from Parkers Crossroads.

Another topic panelists addressed that is expected to be revisited next legislative session is the removal of Common Core State Standards. Some Republican representatives have led a push in the Tennessee legislature to eliminate Common Core, a series of standards that determine what students learn in each grade. They feel the standards represent an overreach of the federal government, although the federal government did not create or enforce the standards.

Panelist Jonathan Butcher, the education director of the Goldwater Institute, said the standards represent a larger threat to the federal government’s interference in parental choice.  “We have to be realistic about what is being forced from inside the beltway,” he said. Right now, the Common Core State Standards are in effect statewide for math and reading, but opponents delayed their expansion to social studies and science, as well as the use of a statewide test to measure how well students learn those standards. The standards will most likely be a hot topic again during the next legislative session in the spring.

The panel was originally supposed to be moderated by Shaka Mitchell, who works for Rocketship Schools, a California-based charter management operator that is slated to open schools in Nashville, but according to a July 15 Tweet from the organization, he was unable to attend.

Clarification: Jonathan Butcher opposes the Common Core State Standards. An earlier version said he did not oppose them per se.