New Conservative groups target education in Hamilton County ahead of the budget elections

Two new Conservative organizations have joined the conversation on politics and politics in Hamilton County – and they are deeply involved in education.

Organizers of the Good Government Coalition and its newly formed Political Action Committee, as well as Hamilton Flourishing, said they formed in response to UnifiEd – an education advocacy organization – and efforts over the past year to raise property tax rates for public education.

Founded in 2014 with support from the Benwood, Footprint and Maclellan Foundations, UnifiEd has been an active player in Hamilton County’s politics and education.

Over the years it has hosted community meetings and school board debates, conducted research, produced the Public Education Pact and the sometimes controversial Report on the Action Plan for Excellent Education (APEX), and a dedicated PAC to assist candidates.

Although UnifiEd has never identified itself as a partisan organization, it has worked to elect Democratic candidates to the Hamilton County Commission and the School Board.

In 2018, the UnifiEd Action PAC spent at least $ 30,000 on district commission and mayor races, including contributions to David Sharpe’s campaign for the seat of the 6th district commissioner and Jim Coppinger’s mayor’s race. In the same year, the then managing director of UnifiEd Jonas Barriere confirmed that all but one of the 10 candidates from the school board for seats in Districts 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 had sat down with the group to obtain their approval.

For members of Hamilton Flourishing and the Good Government Coalition, the County Commission’s 5-4 vote last summer against an increase in the property tax rate for the Hamilton County Schools’s $ 443 million budget proposal was a tight call.

“UnifiEd forced us to look at what was really going on in the Hamilton County’s education system,” said Doug Daugherty, president of Hamilton Flourishing. “People just don’t know what’s going on. You take their kids to school and you assume they get an education and you will pick them up in 10-12 years and everything will be taken care of, and that’s just how it works not. Our mission is to promote the well-being of Hamilton County and Chattanooga by promoting effective public order. So we’ve picked a few things that we think are really important. “

Good Government Coalition co-founder Tom Decosimo, a local businessman, agreed.

“We found that what we took to be UnifiEd was really, quite frankly, more of an activist group trying to switch counties from red to blue,” Decosimo told the Times Free Press on Nov. January. He was also a co-founder and board member of Hamilton Flourishing but resigned to lead the Good Government Coalition. “We found that this group had worked hard to elect certain members to the school board and county commission that would actually change the nature of our government. And we felt they were trying to impose an ideology on Hamilton County, against which we are too. “

However, UnifiEd’s interim executive director Walton Robinson noted that the attempt to raise the budget over the past year had received a lot of support from both parties from various parts of the community, including seven members of the school board, the county mayor Jim Coppinger, the Chamber of Commerce from Chattanooga and dozens of corporate executives and the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, among others.

Asked to respond to Hamilton Flourishing and the Good Government Coalition’s characterization of the UnifiEd agenda, Robinson reiterated that UnifiEd was not a partisan organization.

“We fundamentally believe that every student in Hamilton County should have the opportunity to attend an excellent public school – this is not a partisan target and UnifiEd is not a partisan organization,” Robinson said in a statement. “The members that make up UnifiEd come from a variety of backgrounds from all corners of Hamilton County. What brings them all together is a sincere belief that every student deserves the opportunity and tools to achieve their full potential.”

Social service hubs?

Members of Hamilton Flourishing, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, and the Good Government Coalition, a political action committee dedicated to funding conservative candidates in local elections, have expressed a desire to defend conservative values ​​that stand out from the effort differ from UnifiEd as an impetus for their education.

Hamilton Flourishing, which marketed itself as a research institution when it was founded in early 2019, has a focus on a few specific issues, including advocating educational savings accounts – school vouchers that parents can use taxpayers’ money to send their children to private schools – school selection and awareness-raising dismal literacy rates in Hamilton County, Daugherty said.

Members of the Good Government Coalition also speak out against attempts by the current school district administration to turn schools into “social service” hubs.

Tina Benkiser, a local attorney, board member of the Tennessee Beacon Center and executive committee woman for the Republican Party of Tennessee, said during a meeting with the Times Free Press Jan. 9 that she was dealing with social or behavioral problems, mental health, and others on APEX Issues covered deal report is not the responsibility of the schools.

“If you look at the original institutions of society, they were strong families, governments and strong communities. Historically, when one intuition tries to challenge the other, we get into trouble, and I think we started seeing it here in this one.” special case, “said Benkiser, who is also a senior lecturer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “Can children read at the end of the day? Can they write? Can they do arithmetic? Do they have critical thinking skills to get them ready for jobs or higher education? That’s what the education system is supposed to do – it’s to prepare these children.”

Hamilton Flourishing and the Good Government Coalition are designed to complement each other or work together even though governance is completely separate, Daugherty said.

Nonprofits cannot sponsor candidates or contribute financially to political campaigns, but Decosimo co-founded Hamilton Flourishing before stepping down to lead the Good Government Coalition. Benkiser is now helping lead the Good Government Coalition indictment.

Organizations agree that there are real societal problems in Chattanooga that result in children coming to school unprepared to learn or to thrive. However, they argue that it is not the responsibility of schools – or taxpayers – to strengthen families at home.

Patrick Hampton, vice president of communications and engagement for the Hamilton Flourishing community, has spoken out against some of the Hamilton County Schools’ work in inner-city schools, such as a controversial teacher training event in August 2019 that some said was biased and inappropriate .

But Daugherty said the organization’s goal is not to uproot the public education system.

“We don’t want to take over the Hamilton County Department of Education. It’s not our job, we don’t know enough to do that,” he said. “We want to educate the community, we want to stir things up.”

“It matters who rules”

The Good Government Coalition PAC will act as a political supporter and intends to address educational, economic and other issues in Hamilton County by focusing on governance.

Already targeting the four school council members up for re-election this year, including Districts 1, 2, 4 and 7, the group aims to help change the “vacuum of leadership” it sees in the current nine-member board . Decosimo cited District 1’s Rhonda Thurman as a prime example of the type of elected official the group would like to support.

“Elections are important, and we found that out last year. It matters who rules. We are an independent group – we are not Republicans or Democrats. We are a group of people who believe Hamilton County must go on living by them conservative and traditional values. We will help elect leaders who share these values, “Decosimo said.

Coalition members said the group aims to raise at least $ 200,000 a year and has raised more than $ 70,000 since meeting the Times Free Press in January.

Hamilton Flourishing could work with the Coalition and the PAC by conducting research or advisory experts on topics related to its own focus on literacy, school choice, unemployment and single parents – topics that candidates for assistance may also find important said Daugherty.

In addition to the coalition’s efforts to recruit, train, and support ideal Conservative candidates, Hamilton Flourishing hopes to advocate for specific public policy issues.

Hampton’s goal is to educate the community about education savings accounts, school vouchers, and parenting options when it comes to choosing a school.

He and Daugherty believe that a free market – a conservative philosophy typically favored by Republicans – will enforce competition and therefore improve the quality of educational opportunities.

Republican Governor of Tennessee Bill Lee unveiled school vouchers during the 2019 legislature and will pilot the program in Nashville and Memphis starting this fall. Hampton hopes, however, to find out what is the appetite for such a program in Hamilton County and lobbying state lawmakers.

“I think we have big ideas,” said Hampton about what sets Hamilton Flourishing apart from the other organizations that focus on education in Chattanooga. “I think our ideas are bigger than the other ideas. All of these organizations, like many of them, are pushing it [education savings accounts]? Zero. Having parental control in Hamilton County isn’t something everyone else is talking about, so we’re going to be talking about those things. “

The Good Government Coalition has no plans to address issues outside of Hamilton County, members said, but it will focus on 29 local races over the next three years, including the Hamilton County School Board, the County Commission, the Chattanooga City Council and mayor races.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at [email protected] or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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