Our Interview With Speaker Beth Harwell

Tennessee Education Report had the chance to interview Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) on education issues facing our state. We want to thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk about such an important issue.

Tennessee ranks low in the per-pupil funding of our public schools. Do you think we are doing enough to fund our schools?

This year the legislature fully funded the BEP and increased funding in specific areas; namely, we committed more resources to technology in our schools, which is a vital component of ensuring our students can compete for 21st Century jobs. The most important thing about funding is making sure we are spending those dollars with maximum efficiency to support students and teachers.

Do you support full funding of the bipartisan changes to the BEP that started under BEP 2.0? Will we see a move in that direction in 2014?

Fully funding the BEP is always a top priority. I am always open to discussing ways we can improve the system so we can give our schools the support they need.

Do you support expansion of the state’s voluntary Pre-K program either with federal dollars or through the formula established for expanding Pre-K under the Bredesen administration?

With regards to Pre-K, I think we have struck a good balance thus far. I don’t see expansion in the near future, because I think our priority right now is focusing on K-12 education and making sure we are committing time and resources to that.

Nashville recently changed their starting teacher salaries to $40,000 with great success. Do you support state-level funding to move starting teacher salaries in Tennessee to $40,000 a year?

I think each system should have the flexibility to determine the compensation that makes the most sense for them. In recent years, there has been more of a focus on differentiating pay to some degree based on positions that are traditionally difficult to fill—primarily, STEM positions and lower performing schools. If we can use that as a tool to attract the best and brightest, we should.

Do you support efforts to provide (and state funding for) robust early career mentoring to teachers in their first and second years of teaching?

Any training and mentoring programs we can improve or consider that will give teachers the support and assistance they need is a conversation worth having. As a former professor, I know it is incredibly beneficial to have a network you can reach out to and find out the latest methods and best practices.

After being withdrawn in the Senate on the last day of session, will you work with Sen. Gresham to pass the current charter authorizer bill (HB 702) next session? Would you like to see a revised bill pass?

I do hope we can reach a consensus on the authorizer, because I really do believe it will assist the state in attracting the very best public charter school operators from around the country. This is a critical component, and another tool in the toolbox, to giving students every opportunity to succeed.

Next session, would you support a limited Voucher plan, like Governor Haslam has proposed, or a more expanded plan that has been discussed in the Senate?

I look forward to a continued discussion of vouchers. I think we had a healthy debate last year. While I do not believe they are a silver bullet to ‘fix’ education, I do think it can be a tool. I expect the House and Senate to continue to weigh the pros and cons and find a solution that is right for Tennessee.

Forgive me, I have to ask: Are you planning to run for Governor years down the road? 

I sincerely enjoy being the Speaker of the House—it is an awesome responsibility I do not take lightly, and a great honor. Right now, my focus is on the legislature and what we can do to keep moving this state forward.


 

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