TN Gubernatorial Election: How Will the Candidates Champion Education?


We are five days away from elect­ing Tennessee’s next gov­er­nor, and edu­ca­tion advo­cates are hop­ing to con­tin­ue our pos­i­tive momen­tum based on inno­va­tions in both K-12 and high­er edu­ca­tion. Our new gov­er­nor will forge their own path and set their own pri­or­i­ties, and edu­ca­tion advo­cates are work­ing to find out where can­di­dates stand on key issues, and how to help their net­works pre­pare for the changes ahead.

The Ten­nessee Edu­ca­tion­al Equi­ty Coali­tion wants to ensure that all of our mem­bers are informed on the edu­ca­tion plat­forms of Karl Dean and Bill Lee, and that we make deci­sions based on the most accu­rate infor­ma­tion pos­si­ble. Ear­lier this fall we asked both can­di­dates to com­plete a ques­tion­naire on key edu­ca­tion issues with­in our four pol­i­cy pri­or­i­ties, and both were gen­er­ous in pro­vid­ing us with their time and answers. 

We have com­piled a sum­ma­ry of their respons­es, and added sup­ple­men­tal infor­ma­tion from inter­views, debates and news arti­cles in order to help vot­ers under­stand what the can­di­dates may do if elect­ed. We hope you find this infor­ma­tion use­ful, and that you will share it with col­leagues, par­ents and friends.

Gini Pupo-Walk­er
Senior Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion Pol­i­cy and Pro­grams
Conex­ión Améri­c­as

Pri­or­i­ty 1: What do the can­di­dates say about excel­lent teach­ers and lead­ers? We asked both can­di­dates to share their poli­cies and pri­or­i­ties that will ensure we have high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tors  for every child. 

Karl Dean sup­ports increas­ing teacher pay to improve the pipeline of high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tors in Ten­nessee, as well as sup­port­ing edu­ca­tors with strong pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties. “We need to set up schools for suc­cess,” Dean says, “and that starts with with help­ing our teach­ers.”

Bill Lee places a high val­ue on the teach­ing pro­fes­sion. “Our teach­ers deserve to be sup­port­ed,” Lee claims, “both in salary and in the work envi­ron­ment we cre­ate for them.” In addi­tion to increas­ing teacher pay, Lee points to the impor­tance of rig­or­ous edu­ca­tor prepa­ra­tion pro­grams and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties as well.

We also asked each can­di­date how they would sup­port more diver­si­ty in the edu­ca­tor work­force.

On increas­ing edu­ca­tor diver­si­ty, Dean firm­ly believes “that teach­ers should reflect the demo­graph­ics of the school dis­tricts they serve.” Dean looks to teacher pay and increas­ing school suc­cess statewide in order to recruit and retain a diverse edu­ca­tor work­force.

Lee points to teacher pay, pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties, and improv­ing the recruit­ment pipeline for edu­ca­tor prepa­ra­tion pro­grams for pro­mot­ing a diverse edu­ca­tor work­force.

Pri­or­i­ty 2: What do the can­di­dates say about ensur­ing strong account­abil­i­ty sys­tems?
We asked the can­di­dates to share their phi­los­o­phy for school account­abil­i­ty.

Karl Dean tells us that “account­abil­i­ty is essen­tial to mak­ing sure stu­dents are set up for suc­cess”. Dean favors fair, high-qual­i­ty assess­ments that oper­ate with input from edu­ca­tors. The­se assess­ments should be “time­ful”, as well as help­ful to edu­ca­tors in address­ing stu­dent need.

Bill Lee says that school account­abil­i­ty is “an oppor­tu­ni­ty to use stu­dent mea­sure­ment to help teach­ers grow and devel­op”. For Lee, it is imper­a­tive that stu­dent growth be built into a mod­el of peer coach­ing and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment for teach­ers.

With TNReady fac­ing sig­nif­i­cant admin­is­tra­tive dif­fi­cul­ties, we asked the can­di­dates how they would restore pub­lic trust in our assess­ment sys­tem.

Karl Dean would restore trust by address­ing what he sees as two key con­cerns: 1.) the con­cern that TNReady does not reflect what our chil­dren know and 2.) the con­cern that TNReady results are not returned to schools in a time­ly man­ner. To take the­se con­cerns into account, Dean hopes to devel­op an edu­ca­tor-advised plan with input from schools statewide. The state should com­mit to hav­ing test results avail­able in a time­ly man­ner. “Test­ing for the sake of test­ing will nev­er build trust,” Dean tells us. “But reli­able, use­able test results will.”

On the TNReady admin­is­tra­tive chal­lenges, Lee would explore the fol­low­ing ques­tion as gov­er­nor: “What do teach­ers hope to achieve with such an assess­ment?” If the­se goals are not being met, Lee will advo­cate for a change in TNReady. 

The Coali­tion asked the can­di­dates about their views on mean­ing­ful and engaged school improve­ment strate­gies for Tennessee’s low­est per­form­ing schools.

Says Karl Dean, “local dis­tricts need to work with schools on a case by case basis” and also deter­mine what com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment looks like in their turn­around strate­gies.

In a sim­i­lar vein, Bill Lee does not believe in a “one-size-fits-all” school improve­ment strat­e­gy. Schools should devel­op unique solu­tions — and prais­es the Inno­va­tion Zone in Mem­phis for uti­liz­ing local­ly-led and effec­tive improve­ment.

Pri­or­i­ty 3: What do the can­di­dates say about every school dis­trict receiv­ing appro­pri­ate and equi­table resources?
Rec­og­niz­ing the role of geog­ra­phy in edu­ca­tion oppor­tu­ni­ty, we asked the can­di­dates to share about how they might address gaps in resources across school dis­tricts in both urban and rural areas.

Karl Dean com­mits to pro­tect­ing and increas­ing school fund­ing statewide. In addi­tion, he will look to local lead­ers to put forth more local resources into school dis­tricts. He will also reex­am­ine our state’s Basic Edu­ca­tion Pro­gram (BEP), our com­plex K-12 edu­ca­tion fund­ing for­mu­la. “We have to be open to reex­am­in­ing the for­mu­la we use to fund our schools to make sure every dis­trict has the resources they need.” 

Bill Lee has vis­it­ed the major­i­ty of Ten­nessee coun­ties, telling us “no com­mu­ni­ty I’ve been to believes the BEP ben­e­fits them.” Lee will exam­ine the for­mu­la and recal­i­brate it to provide a more equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion of funds. 

We also asked the can­di­dates to speak about address­ing chron­ic absen­teeism, a per­sis­tent chal­lenge statewide. Stu­dents must have more than 18 absences, or miss 10% of the aca­d­e­mic school year to be con­sid­ered chron­i­cal­ly absent.

Karl Dean believes that chron­ic absen­teeism  “is the num­ber one indi­ca­tor that a stu­dent will drop out of school.” Dean advo­cates for pro­vid­ing school-led inter­ven­tions based on ear­ly-warn­ing sys­tems to address the root of the issue for each stu­dent.

Bill Lee approach­es chron­ic absen­teeism as an issue to be addressed in coor­di­na­tion with teach­ers, admin­is­tra­tors, com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, and par­ents to under­stand each indi­vid­u­al case and how to address it.

Final­ly, we asked the can­di­dates to speak about how poli­cies and prac­tices that would reduce the num­ber of sus­pen­sions and expul­sions in our schools.

Says Dean, “Stu­dents who are sus­pend­ed or expelled are far more like­ly to have low test scores, drop out of high school, or end up in pris­on or the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem.” While Dean does not believe that the gov­er­nor plays a role in telling schools how to dis­ci­pline stu­dents, he does hope to give thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion to our dis­ci­pline trends. 

Lee looks for­ward to the “oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with schools lead­ers and law­mak­ers” to iden­ti­fy, adapt, and scale dis­ci­pline mod­els that work well across Ten­nessee.

Pri­or­i­ty 4: What do the can­di­dates say about suc­cess­ful out­comes in post­sec­ondary edu­ca­tion?
We point­ed to the impor­tance of aca­d­e­mic prepa­ra­tion in ensur­ing every child’s post­sec­ondary suc­cess, and asked the can­di­dates to share how they will increase the num­ber of col­lege and career-ready Ten­nesseans.

Karl Dean says that a “high-qual­i­ty K-12 edu­ca­tion” will pre­pare stu­dents for the path they choose post-high school. Dean hopes that each stu­dent has access to a tal­ent­ed teacher as a key way to pre­pare for post­sec­ondary edu­ca­tion, which can include col­lege, or a tech­ni­cal school that leads to a skilled trade.

Bill Lee believes that “the most impor­tant thing is rec­og­niz­ing that a qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion is one that gets you ready for a high-pay­ing job”. Lee hopes to bring back a focus on career and tech­ni­cal edu­ca­tion, and more specif­i­cal­ly, “voca­tion­al, tech­ni­cal, and agri­cul­tur­al” edu­ca­tion.

We also asked the can­di­dates to speak about increas­ing access to Ear­ly Post­sec­ondary Oppor­tu­ni­ties (EPSOs), a key piece of Tennessee’s ESSA Plan.

Karl Dean will make sure that each school has ade­quate fund­ing to offer mul­ti­ple ear­ly post-sec­ondary cours­es. Dean rec­og­nizes that “the­se cours­es usu­al­ly require more teach­ers, or specif­i­cal­ly trained instruc­tors”, and ade­quate fund­ing can address this bar­ri­er for many schools. 

Bill Lee would “work with our TCATs (Col­leges of Applied Tech­nol­o­gy) and part­ners in the pri­vate sec­tor” to expand the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a more career-focused edu­ca­tion in high school. 

To con­clude, we asked the can­di­dates to share their views on this real­i­ty: each year, about ½ of the for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed in Ten­nessee will recidi­vate. Despite evi­dence that access to edu­ca­tion while incar­cer­at­ed great­ly reduces recidi­vism rates, only 2 per­cent of those incar­cer­at­ed in state facil­i­ties par­tic­i­pat­ed in post­sec­ondary edu­ca­tion last year. 

Karl Dean believes that tack­ling our recidi­vism rate is “cru­cial”, and sees pro­vid­ing greater access to edu­ca­tion as a great first step. 

Bill Lee real­izes that “95 per­cent of those in pris­on are get­ting out some day.” Hav­ing expe­ri­ence work­ing with those incar­cer­at­ed, Lee knows the hope­less­ness that dri­ves many to com­mit their crimes. To give the­se indi­vid­u­als new oppor­tu­ni­ty, Lee sees “help­ing them devel­op skills” and “find work” as great steps to take, and looks for­ward to see­ing pro­gress on this issue.

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