BY MARTA W. ALDRICH
November 7, 2018
Republican businessman Bill Lee promised to bring “fresh ideas” on public education to Tennessee, and he’ll now get the chance as the state’s 50th governor.
In handily defeating Democrat and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean on Tuesday, the Williamson County millionaire and first-time candidate is poised to replace fellow Republican Bill Haslam, who is completing his eighth year in office.
As governor, Lee can significantly shape public education in a state that has pioneered reforms since 2010 as part of a $500 million federal award. It’s uncertain, though, whether he’ll deviate from the state’s blueprint. On the campaign trail, Lee promised to look more closely at Tennessee’s rocky testing program and controversial teacher evaluation system.
Earlier this year, Chalkbeat asked Lee for his positions on big education issues facing the state. Here are his answers, which have been lightly edited for grammar, style, and length.
About the Candidates
Bill Lee (R)
Bill Lee, 58, is president of Franklin-based Lee Co., a $250 million home services business with more than 1,200 employees, and is active in Triple L Ranch, a fourth-generation family cattle farm, both founded by his grandparents. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Auburn University and served on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the board of trustees at Belmont University. He and his wife, Maria, have three children and five 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 schools in Fairview, a rural community near Fernvale, where I still live today. I entered junior high school just a few years after integration of our school system. Those circumstances gave me a keen awareness of the serious achievement gaps in our system, which are leaving behind students in our rural communities and inner cities. To me, the primary causes have been a reliance on big-government, top-down “fixes” to education. Whether it was the massive push away from vocational education to college-prep in our rural areas, or the unabated growth of central-office bureaucracies in the inner city, we have failed to serve the needs of children in these communities. Closing the gap will require fresh ideas, and while some may be controversial, I’m less afraid of change than I am of doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same results.
When it came time to choose schools for your own children, did you choose private schools? Public schools? District-run? Charter? And why?
We exercised different choices at different times for our children’s education. We sent them to public school, private school, and we even home-schooled them for a time. As a family, we made individualized assessments of our children’s needs, and we did the best we could to meet them. I think that’s what every parent tries to do, and we should support the ability of parents to make those decisions.
If you could make one change to improve K-12 education in Tennessee, what would it be and why?
I’d push back on the idea that any one single change could fix K-12 education. I think every parent and teacher is tired of politicians claiming that they and only they have the one solution to solve our education problems. The reality is we have a lot of complex issues in education that require different solutions. For instance, our teachers are undervalued, both in salary and in the work environment we provide for them. The next governor should lift up the teaching profession with competitive compensation, meaningful opportunities for professional development, and more freedom to teach. As a businessman, I know our workforce problems are really an education problem. We need new solutions for vocational, technical, and agricultural education and maintain fiscal responsibility at the same time. At my company, we responded by building our own trade school. We have countless companies across our state who have capacity to help, and we should be pushing for those private-sector partnerships that make industry part of the solution, rather than just the beneficiary.
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?
This general blueprint can be condensed even more generally to: “Have high standards and work to achieve them.” We use the same blueprint in business. Everyone can agree on high standards; it’s what those standards are and how you get there that is really the question. For me, testing is a tool. But if you get the metric wrong or you confuse the measurement for the goal, we can lose sight of the real objective: Raising up successful adults. I think we can push for high standards while reducing the testing burden and focusing on a testing protocol that is more meaningful to our teachers and parents.
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?
I’d ask my education commissioner to lead an open and transparent dialogue about how we define our goals in education and ensure we have the proper tools in place to get us there. If nearly two-thirds of teachers don’t believe the test helps them improve educational outcomes, then we need to have a conversation around what it is we really want to achieve in education. If the current assessment process isn’t meeting that goal, then let’s make a change. I don’t think anyone thinks “no testing” is the answer, but we can certainly streamline those tests and make them more meaningful for students, teachers, and parents.
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?
Ultimately, we’re talking about measuring a child based on a few days of exams. If we can’t have confidence in the administration and grading, then people will lose confidence in the assessment itself. We need to take some serious steps to address the issues in our testing administration and focus on rebuilding trust with parents and teachers.
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?
I’m in a business where we create very detailed construction plans ahead of time. Sometimes in the middle of the project, we’ll find that implementation is going to be more challenging than planned, but we make adjustments to serve the client. As the testing protocol has failed, we’ve made adjustments to hold teachers harmless. We now have an opportunity in this period of transition to look back at what we’ve learned and see how we do better in using student growth to actually help our teachers learn and improve. The point of measuring student growth isn’t to create a scoreboard for teachers. It’s to give our teachers the tools to see where they can grow. I’d like to see student growth scores rolled into a more cooperative model of peer coaching and professional development, and use it in a way that helps our teachers come back stronger every year.
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?
We need to be smart with how we use the dollars we have, and we have to make sure they are being spent effectively. I’ve managed a quarter-billion-dollar budget in a low-margin business, while also being named the best place to work in Middle Tennessee. The key is prioritizing your “needs” before your “wants.” Like any government body, education is susceptible to wasteful spending. I’ve called for the creation of a new inspector general to proactively seek out waste and abuse in the system. I’ll push for more transparency around education funding, identify “use-it or lose-it” spending requirements that drive waste, and ensure that funding for education is spent exclusively on education.
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 don’t think it’s the type of school or who owns the building that matters. What matters is whether or not it’s a quality school. When parents have the freedom to choose, not only is their child’s trajectory improved, but the introduction of choice and competition raises the bar for everyone. We have choices in every other aspect of our lives, and Tennessee families deserve choice in education too. Our vision for education should be inclusive of high-quality charter schools and innovative Education Savings Accounts which help parents customize their child’s education.
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?
Early childhood is such a critical period for a child’s development and we’ve seen that high-quality Pre-K can work. The issue has been delivering that quality. Currently, Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program costs nearly $100 million annually, but recent reports find that we only meet five of 10 benchmarks for quality. Inconsistent quality is one of the reasons cited in studies for why the growth from Pre-K can fade by third grade. Before we can have a conversation around expanding this program, I believe we owe it to taxpayers and parents to focus first on how we can improve quality to ensure that any gains are sustainable. That begins by working with our state universities and colleges of education to ensure they are driving quality training for early childhood educators, while at the same time working with local education agencies to set goals for improvement, and identify best practices across the state.
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.
We’ve already seen some pretty big shifts in how the state administers the Achievement School District, so change is already happening. Looking forward, I’m hopeful we can work with the operators and school districts in Memphis and Nashville to create a space for innovation and new ideas. The Shelby County I-Zone is trying new ideas that are working and informing the ASD, and these shifts probably would not have happened in the absence of the ASD in the first place. Similar reforms are already informing a new and much-needed effort in Hamilton County. Whether we call it the ASD or a Partnership Network, or however we move forward in crafting a cooperative solution, we have to maintain a focus on supporting LEAs to take decisive action in chronically low-performing schools. Allowing the system to continue to fail students is not an option.
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?
For a lot of candidates, vocational education is a talking point. But for the last 35 years, it’s been my life. I run a company with 1,200 employees, mostly skilled craftsmen, many of whom don’t have a degree, but still have an amazing career in the trades. Ten years ago, what we found is that even though we were one of the best places to work in Tennessee, we couldn’t fill the jobs we had. To address it, we built our own trade school, helping over 1,000 men and women advance their careers. We have a long list of private sector partners who are ready to partner with our schools for apprenticeships, instructor training, or curriculum design, but they need a shared vision and a willing partner on the other side. As governor, I’d bring the private sector together with school leaders across the state and start a fresh dialogue on how to more effectively partner with the business community in developing a skilled workforce.
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?
The obesity rate has grown at an alarming rate in the past 30 years. As governor, I’d seek out smarter engagement in the health system rather than a top-down, government-first approach. Throughout this campaign, I have talked about the need to engage more in public-private partnerships with the faith-based and nonprofit communities, because in many cases, they are already addressing community needs like this. I chaired the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, which has been a leader in wellness education for adults and children. Supporting local schools in developing new community partnerships with health-minded organizations like the YMCA can have a much more effective impact in health outcomes than simply passing a new unfunded government mandate. In Tennessee, we have an amazing natural resource in the form of our nonprofit and faith community partners. Working with them more effectively is a great place to start improving health in our state
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