Sign up for newsletter >>
Partners In Deceit

Partners In Deceit

A public school advocacy group claims nonpartisanship, but the allegiances of its members show otherwise

Back in October of last year, Will Pinkston and Donna Wright launched Public School Partners (PSP), a nonprofit allegedly devoted to the nonpartisan defense of public schooling. The organization produces a lot of literature purporting to show the negative impact of charter schools, but its claim to nonpartisanship is up for debate.

Pinkston, an avowed Democrat, has made a name for himself as a rabid defender of traditional public schools. A brief perusal of his Twitter will reveal bottomless antipathy for those who even utter the words "charter school." Based on his spirited defense of a system that’s fallen into disrepair over the past 40 years, you’d think public education was some sort of sacred, ancestral shrine.

His staunch opposition to school choice and student vouchers probably helped his organization secure the funding for a study, paid for by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state's largest teacher's union. To put a button on this, the state's largest teacher's union—which has a large incentive to ensure public schools remain funded and uncontested—bankrolled a study for a nonprofit explicitly created to oppose public charter schools, which simply provide a choice for public school families.

The study, conducted by law professor Derek Black, revealed that charter schools were bad, arguing that "state-mandated charter schools lead to significant 'fixed costs' stranded in traditional public schools" due to maintenance requirements for buildings and employee salaries not contingent on the number of students taught or instructed.

Black is something of a Pinkston-style defender of public schools himself: he’s previously stated that public education law puts "the priority of children’s freedoms to become and to learn over parental freedoms of choice and control" and has claimed that parents' rights end with public education. Parents, in his words, only have the "right to go private at their own cost."

Relatedly, Black aggressively supported mask mandates, penning an op-ed in USA Today titled “Banning masks is dangerous” threatening the continuance of school closures in their absence.

Like Pinkston, Black is an unrepentant Democrat. In other words, Public School Partners’ whole nonpartisan claim relies entirely on the political views of Pinkston's PSP partner, Donna Wright—which appear to be more opaque than either Black's or Pinkston's.

Both Black and Pinkston have donated 100% to Democrats. Wright, on the other hand, has donated 55% to Democrats and 45% to Republican candidates. At best, Wright is a center-left Democrat if we're to judge by these numbers.

Nate Rau of Axios Nashville seems to agree with this. In the original newsletter version of the story introducing PSP, Rau described Pinkston and Wright thusly:

Former Nashville school board member Will Pinkston, a Democrat and staunch opponent of charter school expansion, and former Wilson County Schools superintendent Donna Wright are among the group's leaders.

Notice there is no mention of Wright's political affiliation. However, in the online version of the story, Wright's descriptor is updated to say "former Wilson County Schools superintendent Donna Wright, a Republican." This change was likely made to better reflect the supposed nonpartisan nature of the organization—or at least to provide the appearance.

Rau is not alone in his chummy relationship with PSP and TEA. Unsurprisingly, infamous Pamphleteer punching bag Phil Williams repeats similar talking points in his concerted effort to discredit the school choice movement.

Williams spent the entirety of last year reporting negatively on Hillsdale College's efforts to help initiate a handful of charter schools in Tennessee, misconstruing (or misunderstanding—it's honestly hard to tell with him) the alleged profit motive of Hillsdale and parroting TEA talking points by describing charters as "privately operated." To be clear, charter schools are public schools that receive public funds on a student-by-student basis. Labeling them "privately operated" deliberately elides this point.

What should be plainly obvious about this cast of characters is that they’re in cahoots—or at least appear to be. In tandem, these organizations have been able to successfully snuff out charter applications and generally demonize school choice, which to parents and students seeking alternative solutions has left them in the lurch.

At stake here is the future of Tennessee's children, especially those without the resources to seek out alternative solutions including moving to a better public school district or even private schooling. In the story above, it’s impossible to conclude that the advocates, activists, and union bosses want to help parents and children make the most of free, public education by giving them any say in these matters. Instead, they insist without evidence throwing more funding at public schools will help solve the issues that have plagued traditional public education for decades.

Charter schools introduce competition into a rapidly deteriorating public education system that, more and more every day, fails parents and students. If traditional public schools are so effective and superior to their alternatives, what do these advocates have to fear by providing families with more choices?