Education Reform Now Advocacy spends $57,000 on 2 Memphis school board challengers ahead of the election

Voting at polling places now includes social distancing stickers to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

A national advocacy organization that seeks to increase charter school funding and school accountability is the biggest contributor in the races to elect Shelby County Schools board members. 

Our Children, Our Choice TN, the political action committee funded by Education Reform Now Advocacy, spent about $57,000 between Sheleah Harris and Kristy Sullivan, who are challenging incumbents Scott McCormick and Kevin Woods, respectively. 

The PAC spent about $48,000 on mailings, digital advertising, phone banking, and campaign donations to Harris and about $9,000 on Sullivan’s behalf. 

The spending boosts competition in the Memphis school board’s two biggest races. Woods, who has been on the board since he was appointed in 2011, and McCormick, who was elected to the board in 2014, are each facing three challengers. (Mauricio Calvo dropped out of the race against McCormick and endorsed Harris last month.) 

Education Reform Now Advocacy is affiliated with Education Reform Now, which is run by Shavar Jeffries, who is also the president of Democrats for Education Reform. The national think tank researches and helps draft legislation on school funding, teacher preparation, and expanding quality charter schools. 

Lacretia Carroll, Education Reform Now’s training director based in Memphis, said in a statement that Harris and Sullivan are graduates of their Leaders of Color program.

“These candidates — both of whom would be the first Black woman to hold their position —have been, and will continue to be, strong advocates for Shelby County students and families,” she said.

Other groups endorsing or spending on school board candidates include Memphis PACE, the political action committee for Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, which represents thousands of Shelby County Schools teachers; Stand for Children, an education advocacy organization based in Portland with a Memphis chapter; and the Central Labor Council of Memphis & West Tennessee. 

Early voting has ended, but election day is Thursday. The Tennessee Secretary of State said Tuesday that because of a surge of absentee ballots, election results could be delayed. A spokeswoman for the Shelby County Election Commission said the county usually distributes up to 1,000 absentee ballots per election. Now that voters can cite coronavirus concerns as a reason to vote by mail, the county has distributed more than 19,000 absentee ballots and as of Monday had received about 12,000. 

Candidates Paul Evelyn Allen, Trevor Johnson Banks, Miska Clay Bibbs, Althea Greene, Stephanie Love, Clyde Pinkston, Tamarques Porter, and Aaron Youngblood did not report campaign spending this summer or had incomplete information, according to the Shelby County Election Commission’s website. The election commission noted some finance disclosure forms have not been posted yet. Below is a sampling of contributions to school board candidates:

District 2

  • Althea Greene: $500 from Stand PAC of Tennessee (Stand for Children), $500 from Memphis PACE, and endorsed by the Central Labor Council of Memphis & West Tennessee

District 3

  • Jesse Jeff: $1,000 from Memphis PACE and endorsed by the Central Labor Council of Memphis & West Tennessee
  • Stephanie Love: $3,500 for mailings from Stand PAC of Tennessee and $500 from Memphis PACE
  • Aaron Youngblood: $500 from Memphis PACE 

District 4

  • Clyde Pinkston: No information available 
  • Tamarques Porter: $500 from Memphis PACE and endorsed by the Central Labor Council of Memphis & West Tennessee
  • Kristy Sullivan: $6,400 donation from Our Choice, Our Children TN, along with nearly $3,000 in digital ads and mailings
  • Kevin Woods: Contributions from more than 100 donors totaling $83,000 including $500 from Stand PAC of Tennessee and Memphis PACE, and various amounts from Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, county commissioners Mickell Lowery and Tami Sawyer, city council members Patrice Robinson and Jeff Warren, and fellow school board member Billy Orgel 

District 5

  • Paul Evelyn Allen: $500 from Memphis PACE
  • April Ghueder: $100 from County Commissioner Michael Whaley and $220 from Leadership for Educational Equity staff, who support Teach for America alumni in advocacy
  • Sheleah Harris: $6,400 donation from Our Choice, Our Children TN, along with about $41,000 in digital ads, phone banking, and mailings; $2,500 donation and $2,500 worth of mailings from Stand PAC of Tennessee; $500 from Memphis PACE; endorsed by the Central Labor Council of Memphis & West Tennessee
  • Scott McCormick: About $14,000 from about 30 donors including fellow board member Billy Orgel, city councilman Jeff Warren, and Blue Cross Blue Shield PAC. Board member Woods is the Memphis market president for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

District 7

  • Trevor Johnson Banks: No information available
  • Miska Clay Bibbs: $3,500 worth of mailings from Stand PAC of Tennessee, $500 from Memphis PACE, and endorsed by the Central Labor Council of Memphis & West Tennessee

Update and clarification, Aug. 5, 2020: This story has been updated with a statement from Education Reform Now sent after publication and PAC contribution amounts to Kevin Woods. This story also clarifies that Education Reform Now Advocacy, affiliated with Education Reform Now, is the entity that donated money to the Our Children, Our Choice PAC.

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