2018 Gubernatorial Education Forum

Last night, candidates vying to be Tennessee’s next Governor participated in a forum on education held at Belmont University and sponsored by SCORE (Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education).

Five of the seven candidates attended the event. Mae Beavers had a death in the family and was unable to attend. Congressman Diane Black cited a “scheduling conflict.” That’s typically political speak for not wanting to answer tough questions.

Yes, Black is a Member of Congress and yes, Congress is in session. However, key votes on reopening the government after a brief shutdown had already taken place. Further, Black’s vote would not have been a pivotal one in that process.

Diane Black is asking Tennesseans to trust her to lead the state and she couldn’t be bothered to join a forum and answer direct questions on one of the state’s largest expenditures and a top priority issue for voters.

Now, a roundup of reporting on the candidates who did attend and participate: House Speaker Beth Harwell, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, businessman and former Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, and businessman Bill Lee.

Here’s Chalkbeat’s report, noting a significant amount of agreement among the candidates on a range of issues.

First, teacher pay: 

Every candidate said they want to boost pay for Tennessee teachers on the heels of two years of increased allocations under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, offered the most direct pledge, calling higher salaries his “No. 1 priority,” while House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, gave a more restrained endorsement. “We have now given two back-to-back 4 percent pay increases to our teachers,” Harwell said. “Would I like to do more? Of course. And when the budget allows for that, I will.” On a related note, most candidates said it’s also time to revisit the state’s formula for funding K-12 education.

Plight of the DREAMers:

Republicans said they would not sign legislation that would provide so-called “Dreamers” with the tuition break to attend the state’s higher education institutions, while Democrats said they would. “I’m the only person on this panel who has voted to do that, and I will vote to do that again,” Fitzhugh said of unsuccessful bills in Tennessee’s legislature during recent years. “It is cruel that we do not let these children that have lived in Tennessee all their life have in-state tuition,” he added. Republicans emphasized the letter of the law. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that we would offer something in college tuition to an immigrant that was here illegally that we wouldn’t offer to an American citizen from Georgia,” said Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County.

Supporting Public Schools:

Fitzhugh was the only candidate who said that he and all of his children are products of public schools, and that his grandchildren attend public schools as well.

READ MORE from Chalkbeat

The Tennessean has this break down of answers to three key questions:


Boyd: “We need to find the programs that work well and duplicate those.”

Dean: He would like to see pre-K statewide and “available in all school systems.”

Fitzhugh: “Under Gov. Haslam’s leadership we have moved pre-K where it needs to go and I would like to see it ultimately for every single child.”

Harwell: She cited “mixed results” of existing programs, wants to lean on nurturing high-quality options.

Lee: “Strong pre-K programs move the needle.” He wants to “make certain that the program that we currently have is quality, and we should move on that first.”

Just where was Diane Black?

The Tennessean reports she was in Tennessee, raising money instead of talking with voters about her education policy plans:

Black declined to participate in the forum because of a scheduling conflict. According to an invitation obtained by the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee, she was attending a campaign reception at Southeast Venture, a development firm near 100 Oaks, that cost $250 per couple to attend and included hors d’oeuvres.

While I’m sure the snacks were nice and the haul of campaign cash significant, Tennessee voters surely expect a person running for the state’s top job to join with her opponents in answering relevant questions.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Bill Lee wants to Raise Your Taxes and Silence Your School Board

Ok, gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee didn’t actually say he wants to raise your taxes, though the policy proposal he’s put forward would likely result in local property tax increases. He did, however, suggest silencing school boards by way of curbing their ability to be represented in public policy debate in Nashville.

Erik Schelzig of the Associated Press reports:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee said he supports spending more public money on private school tuition around Tennessee, and that restrictions should be placed on lobbying by government entities that oppose school vouchers.

I wrote previously about how Lee has been a staunch advocate of using public money for private schools by way of vouchers. I also noted that the most recent evidence indicates he’s wrong when he asserts that vouchers will improve education outcomes for Tennessee students.

The proposal to silence local school boards because they oppose school vouchers is not a new one. In fact, legislation to that effect was previously proposed by Lee’s Williamson County neighbor, Jeremy Durham. Here’s more on that effort:

Joey Garrison has the story about some legislators who wish that local school boards didn’t hire lobbyists to represent their interests before the legislature.

To that end, they’ve filed legislation that would allow County Commissions to revise a School Board’s budget as it relates to lobbying expenses (HB 229/SB 2525).

Many school boards in the state are members of the Tennessee School Boards Association, which hires a lobbyist to represent the interests of school boards at the General Assembly. Additionally, some local boards hire contract firms and/or in-house government relations specialists to monitor state policy.

Of course, many County Commissioners are members of the Tennessee County Commissioners Organization, which employs a lobbyist to represent the interests of County Commissions at the General Assembly.  And many local government bodies also contract for or hire government relations specialists.

The attempt at silencing voices opposed to school vouchers ultimately failed to advance. Lee’s embrace of the failed Durham proposal may be of note to school board and county commission members considering his campaign.

As it relates to taxes, Lee’s support for a broad voucher program would likely result in a tax increase of some form. I wrote last year about the cost of a “voucher school district” and noted that if a statewide proposal took hold, it would be rather costly:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

Additionally, analysis by the County Commissioners Association (a group Lee would seem to want silenced as their positions don’t match his advocacy) shows that local property taxes would almost certainly go up as a result of a comprehensive statewide voucher program.

As TREE noted:

The property tax increases to offset vouchers seen on the spreadsheet is not something any county commissioner wants to pass on to property owners. Lauderdale County loses the most with an 84.23 cent increase per year. Davidson is looking at a 30.36 cent increase.

Even if you look at what’s happening in Indiana as an example, you’d see increases along the lines of 28 cents in Lauderdale County and around 10 cents in Davidson. Alternatively, Lee could look to state revenue to offset the increased costs of a voucher program.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Bill Lee Wrong on Vouchers

Back in January of 2016, now-gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee wrote an op-ed claiming that adding school vouchers to the mix in Tennessee’s education landscape would lead to improved education outcomes.

Here’s what he had to say:

This is where opportunity scholarships come in. The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.

Recent evidence tells us that’s not the case. In fact, studies of voucher programs in D.C., Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio indicate students lose ground academically when accepting a voucher and attending a private school.

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

Last year, Lee was peddling the myth that private schools offered better opportunity for kids. After analyzing the date, Dynarski and Nichols say this:

If the four studies suggest anything, it’s that private schools have no secret key that unlocks educational potential.

Visiting Lee’s campaign website yields little information about his views on actual policy. Of course, it is early in the campaign. However, it’s not clear if he still believes Tennessee tax dollars should be spent on voucher schemes that have been shown to have negative results in other states.

If Lee does in fact continue to advocate for vouchers, he’ll need to explain why Tennessee should invest in a program that has gotten such bad results across the country.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport