BY MARTA W. ALDRICH –
July 9, 2018
Two candidates are squaring off to be the Democratic nominee for governor of Tennessee.
Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley will compete for the chance to face one of four Republican candidates in November’s general election. They hope to succeed Gov. Bill Haslam and become the first Democratic governor in eight years.
The primary election is on Aug. 2, with early voting July 13-28.
Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that it’s one of the top issues in this year’s race.
We asked the candidates about their own educational experiences and choices, how they would address Tennessee’s standardized testing challenges, whether the state should spend more money on schools, and more.
Below, find their answers, which have been lightly edited for grammar, style, and length. You can sort by candidate.
Also, read the responses of Republican candidates here.
About the Candidates
Karl Dean, 62, was mayor of Nashville from 2007 to 2015. An attorney, he previously was elected to three terms as Metro Nashville’s public defender and later served as its law director under former Mayor Bill Purcell. Dean has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a law degree from Vanderbilt. He has been a professor at both Vanderbilt and Belmont universities. Dean and his wife, Anne, have three children.
Craig Fitzhugh, 68, has represented Crockett, Haywood, and Lauderdale counties in Tennessee’s Legislature since 1994. He has been House minority leader since 2010. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Fitzhugh earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Tennessee and practiced law in Ripley before becoming CEO of the Bank of Ripley in 1992. He and his wife, Pam, a retired educator, have two children and four grandchildren.
Tell us about the kinds of schools you went to, what school was like for you, and how that influences your education policy today.
I attended public school K-12 and had great teachers which gave me a great respect for the profession. Growing up, I spent most of my time in my school libraries and my small town’s public library. That is what directly led to my work with Limitless Libraries, which is a collaborative program between the Nashville Public Library and Metro Schools to deliver books and materials directly to school libraries. It now has expanded to almost all Metro high schools and middle schools.
I went to public schools in my small hometown of Ripley. I received a great education from caring teachers, and they prepared me for a life in the wider world. I want that same type of opportunity for every Tennessee child, and that is why I am a strong proponent of public schools.
When it came time to choose schools for your own children, did you choose private schools? Public schools? District-run? Charter? And why?
I have three children and they attended a mix of public and private schools during elementary grades and then later all three went to private schools. My wife’s family has a long history with the private schools our children attended, and so it was always a given that they would go there. We were fortunate to be able to send our children to schools where we knew they would receive a high-quality education, and I believe all families deserve the same. That’s why I worked hard as mayor to improve access to high-quality public schools in Nashville, and I’ll do the same as governor.
My wife and I chose public schools for our children, and our children have chosen public schools for our grandkids. We remembered the solid education we received, and we wanted our children to be part of the public school system with their friends and neighbors. Sending your children to local public schools in an investment in your community.
If you could make one change to improve K-12 education in Tennessee, what would it be and why?
I would pay our teachers more and make sure they have the necessary supports to be successful. I have heard from educators statewide that keeping great teachers is a challenge no matter where you go because other districts and other states can pay upwards of $10,000 more. Urban areas like Memphis are losing critical STEM educators to the private sector. We need to put ourselves in a position where we are attracting and retaining the best. This includes making sure teachers have access to quality mentoring and professional development programs. And, we should ensure that teacher prep programs provide comprehensive literacy and math training, which are two of our state’s greatest needs. The magic happens in our classrooms, and that is because of good teachers.
I fear that we have turned too much to testing as the main reason that our children are attending school. So much preparation time is dedicated to taking these standardized tests. While we do need to measure progress, we need to make sure that we give teachers and students the time and flexibility to learn and not just focus on testing.
For 16 years and through two administrations, Tennessee has had the same general blueprint for improving education by 1) raising academic standards, 2) adopting an aligned test to measure student progress, and 3) using the results to hold students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable. In your administration, would you stay the course? Why or why not?
I would stay the course. The administrations of Gov. Bredesen and Gov. Haslam both created education programs that are great for the state, and I would look to continue that investment. We have done a great job of raising standards and expectations so that students will be ready for college and career. We now need to give educators the resources and supports they need to make sure students master our higher standards.
I am all for higher standards, but we have certainly missed the boat on the testing aspect of improving education. Our state has struggled with vendors who could not properly administer the tests to our students, and we need to be hyper-vigilant on making sure that reliable and proven vendors get the contract to administer tests to our children, and that they fairly and accurately measure the ability of our kids and the curriculum.
The state and its testing companies have struggled to administer TNReady effectively, exasperating school communities and prompting emergency state laws that made this year’s scores inconsequential. Would you work to fix TNReady, or start over? How central to accountability systems would standardized testing be under your administration?
The purpose of standardized testing is to make sure students aren’t falling through the cracks and that educators have the data they need to meet each students’ individual academic needs. Because of the issues with test administration and the delays in getting scores back, neither of these goals have been met in recent years, and we need to fix that. The state needs to look extensively into what went wrong and create a detailed plan to prevent those mistakes and others in the future. Additionally, backup plans need to be in place before online tests are administered. With something as important as education, we can’t take anything for granted. We must hope for the best but prepare for the worst. And we have to do all of that in a transparent, open way ‒ seeking input from educators who have experienced firsthand the challenges created by the failed administration of this test.
I believe it is time to start over on TNReady. Hundreds of millions of dollars and multiple years have passed, and the Department of Education cannot seem to get this right. Parents, teachers, students, and legislators have no confidence in this current system. In my administration, those who are not accountable will not be part of the process or a part of my administration.
Much of the frustration over TNReady has been the state’s bumpy transition to computerized testing, and the state has again reset its timeline for that switch. Should Tennessee forge ahead with online exams, or revert to paper?
I don’t think we should turn our back on online testing. Many other states are already doing this successfully, and we can too. The world is relying more and more on technology, and we owe it to our students to prepare them to thrive in that world. Almost everything is done with computers now. While we need to have paper-and-pen tests as part of a backup system, it is critical that we develop and perfect an online testing system that keeps up with the modern world. Online testing will also help speed up scoring, which will allow teachers to use the results as they are intended ‒ to get an accurate snapshot of what students have mastered so that they can focus on instruction that meets student needs.
We should be able to administer online tests in the 21st century. It is a good thing that we had paper backups, and we should. But if we can do banking online, then we can administer tests online. Other states have administered tests online, and so can we.
Of all of the state’s strategies aimed at improvement, incorporating student growth scores in teacher evaluations has been among the most controversial. Would you stick with that plan? Why or why not?
Teaching is one of the most important ‒ and most difficult ‒ occupations in the world, and great educators should be rewarded. In order to reward the best of the best, we need to have some way of evaluating their success. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. The important thing is to make sure that the measurement is fair and does what it is intended to do. And that teachers who struggle are given the supports they need to reach their full potential.
I have concerns with student scores being a determining factor for teacher evaluations. A good teacher can make all the difference in the world when it comes to a child’s learning. But in some cases, a teacher may only have a child in his or her class for a short while before they take their test, and this unfairly shows on the teacher’s evaluation. I am honored to have the endorsement of the Tennessee Education Association. In many cases — with work and commutes — these hardworking professionals spend more time with our kids than parents do. They have our kids’ best interests at heart.
The state is being sued by a handful of districts over the adequacy of school funding through the formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP. Does Tennessee need to spend more money on K-12 education? Why or why not? If the answer is yes, where would you get the money?
Yes. While our state has been making greater investments in public education, there is still a need to do more. I’ve visited with numerous superintendents in rural districts and each have a hard time getting the resources they need to make improvements. Rural districts do not have the same tax base advantages as urban and suburban areas. At the same time, our urban districts are educating a larger percentage of English language learners and students who are economically disadvantaged, both of which require more resources to educate. I would be open to taking a look at the Basic Education Program and whether or not it is working for all of our districts statewide. The money would come from setting priorities and sticking to them, and education would always be my top priority. That’s what I did as mayor of Nashville, and we were able to increase funding for our public schools by 37 percent over eight years.
The state needs to spend more money on the BEP. We are investing in the future of our state. I believe that additional funding could come from the collection of online sales taxes. For Tennessee, that could mean hundreds of millions of dollars annually. While businesses may come and go, putting money into our students will always reap a return.
Should Tennessee expand school choice further or do more to restrict it — and how would either be accomplished? Should Tennessee use public money for private school vouchers? Should any new restrictions or rules be placed on charter schools?
I have been and will remain opposed to private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools. But public charter schools have proven to be successful in urban areas like Memphis and Nashville. When I first took office as mayor in Nashville, our school district was on the brink of state takeover and we had a number of schools that gravely needed support. During my administration, Nashville became a center for education reform because we were willing to be innovative and move beyond the limitation of traditional public schools. We recognized that not all children learn alike and we needed to provide options to meet their needs. But I do not think charter schools are a panacea. While they have worked in urban areas, we cannot say the same for rural communities. We should look to improve rural districts by expanding their tax base and reexamining the formula for which we fund our schools.
Tennessee should never use public school money for private school vouchers. Public funds should go to public schools. When our schools have issues, we should work on improving them and solving the problems, not move to charter schools. The legislature expanded charter schools in 2009 in the Race to the Top, but I believe that any further expansion is unwarranted at this time.
Research indicates the importance of educating and socializing children at a young age, even from infancy. How should Tennessee make preschool more accessible to children in poor families?
I strongly support preschool education and will work to make it accessible. The research is clear that high-quality preschool gives children in high-risk situations a better foundation for their K-12 education, but the key word there is quality. We can’t just fund more access to pre-K; we have to focus on improving the quality of the programs statewide while also expanding access. In addition, we need to offer more after-school programs statewide.
We should have universal pre-K. Head Start programs help our children in underserved communities, but we need to invest more in early childhood education programs. I passed a bill in the House that would create an endowment to help with school funding on the local level. Much in the way the lottery funds college scholarships, we can use additional monies from this fund for early education.
It’s been five years since the state launched its Achievement School District to turn around low-performing schools. But the district hasn’t moved the needle on student achievement. In fact, a recent Vanderbilt study says ASD schools don’t perform any better than low-performing schools that have not had any interventions. What is your position on the ASD? Should it be changed, expanded, or cease to exist? Explain.
I started my career in the Nashville Public Defender’s office and learned a lot about how important a quality education is. My clients were overwhelmingly high school dropouts, so I saw a direct connection between public safety, economic success, and education. All children in Tennessee deserve access to a high-quality education. There are no simple solutions to the complex problem of providing every child with the opportunity to be successful, and different solutions work in different districts, in different neighborhoods, and sometimes even for different children in the same family. That said, I would take a very close look at the ASD ‒ what it has done well and what has not worked. I would listen and then make a decision as to what is in the best interest of Tennessee students. I have been very impressed with the iZone schools in Memphis.
I think the time for the ASD has come and gone. It was an audacious goal to turn around these schools, but we need to focus on the schools as they exist and help LEAs with the resources they need.
The future of work is changing quickly, and schools are challenged to keep up to equip students for the workforce. What is your plan for making sure that Tennessee’s students will be prepared for jobs of the future?
I think we need to start early on educating students about the options they have in the workforce But, also we should form partnerships with businesses and nonprofits to expose students to the many career opportunities available to them. We did this in Nashville with the High School Academies program. Our standards for public education also have to keep up with workforce demands. While we need to be a state with more college graduates, a four-year institution is not for everyone. We need to invest in high-quality vocational and technical programs to give those who choose not to go to college the opportunity to get a good-paying job. We need to expand rural broadband so children can have the same access to information as other areas of Tennessee.
We have to make sure sure that our schools are equipped with the latest technology for our students, and that is for every school, regardless of zip code. The legislature made a large investment in our TCATs to upgrade equipment. We must also work with corporations and TCAT/community colleges to partner for local job training and retraining. Companies will locate in areas with strong education programs and the ability to tailor training to their unique needs.
Tennessee’s children are the heaviest in the nation, according to a recent scorecard by the The Commonwealth Fund. How would you attack this public health crisis, including how you would get schools to help?
As mayor of Nashville, I implemented several public awareness campaigns directed toward getting Nashvillians to make healthier choices, and we made significant investments in parks, greenways, and sidewalks to provide families with more access to active lifestyles. As adults, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure our children have access to healthy foods and physical activity because we know that childhood obesity is linked to many chronic health problems later in life. We need to do more to ensure that children have opportunities to be active in and out of school and that we’re making those opportunities accessible and fun for all. School nurses are a great resource for ideas around healthy choices. I would love to get their thoughts and then work to put them into action. Basic health including, diet, exercise, the dangers of smoking, etc., should be a part of school curriculum.
We have to make sure that our schools make time for physical education and recess periods. Giving kids time to run and play not only gives them a period of exercise but improves their attentiveness in the classroom. Schools must also provide nutritious meals and educate students on smart food choices.
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