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GOP lawmaker who voted no on voucher bill faces attack ad

August 27, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A group that helped advance Tennessee’s newly enacted voucher law is now targeting a Republican lawmaker who voted against the contentious plan.

The American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group once chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, released an online ad earlier this month criticizing Rep. Mark Cochran for voting no on a plan to expand education savings accounts in Tennessee.

In Tennessee, the ESA program diverts tax dollars to private education and allows participating families to receive debit cards up to $7,300 in state education money each year. However, critics say the ESA program doesn’t help current failing schools and only takes away money from the state’s public education system.

The American Federation for Children’s attack ad includes a screenshot of a tweet sent by President Donald Trump endorsing Tennessee’s ESA plan while accusing the Englewood representative of turning “his back on President Trump” by voting no.

The 33-year-old Cochran, from Englewood, is up for reelection for a second two-year term in 2020.

Gillum Ferguson, a spokesman for the Tennessee Federation for Children, declined on Monday to comment when asked about the ad and whether other lawmakers might be targeted.

The Tennessee group spent nearly $6,400 in direct mailers supporting Cochran in the 2018 election, as well as thousands more on a handful of other Tennessee legislative candidates they hoped would vote in favor of school choice legislation.

“This type of activity obviously doesn’t have an impact on me and is just part of politics,” Cochran said in a statement when asked about the ad. “At this point, I’m looking ahead at our next session and am excited about the progress we’ll continue to make for Tennesseans.”

Expanding school choice options for Tennessee families became a top issue during this year’s legislative session. Republican Gov. Bill Lee first unveiled the ESA proposal during his inaugural State of the State address to lawmakers in January and spent months amending the proposal to get it through a reluctant Statehouse wary of possible pushback from local teachers.

Ultimately, after multiple tweaks, the ESA program would apply only to the state’s largest school districts — Nashville metro and Shelby County, the area’s with the lowest performing schools — starting in 2021. The program also caps who can take advantage of it at 15,000 students over five years.

The Tennessee Federation for Children has since encouraged the governor to implement the plan sooner than that and Lee has said he hopes to do so by 2020.

The anti-Cochran ad comes just as Tennessee lawmakers recently elected House Speaker Cameron Sexton to oversee the GOP-controlled chamber, who notably also voted against the voucher plan.

It is unknown if the American Federation for Children will also target Sexton as the 2020 election inches closer. However, the group previously targeted Republican Rep. David Byrd in online advertising in April when he was among the nine lawmakers — which included Cochran — to vote against the voucher plan while it advanced out of the House Education Committee. Cochran was targeted in another version of that ad as well.

Byrd, who has been dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct by three women for more than a year, was immediately removed from his committee chairmanship a day after voting no.

The group also has run online ads thanking a number of lawmakers who voted in favor of the ESA program, saying they stood with President Trump and Lee.

The ad campaign prompted criticism from the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union and a prominent voucher opponent.

“They not only attack pro-public school legislators, they’ve sent positive mail into districts of pro-voucher legislators,” said Jim Wrye of the Tennessee Education Association. “They hide vouchers as well as they can on the mailer. Yet as any Tennessee teacher knows, when you’re afraid to explain what you’ve done, you know it’s wrong.”

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