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How Memphians reacted when an urban schools leader endorsed a Republican candidate for governor

Bill Lee, Republican candidate for Tennessee governor at a debate Tuesday hosted in Memphis.
Bill Lee, Republican candidate for Tennessee governor at a debate Tuesday hosted in Memphis.
Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal

It didn’t take long for consternation to erupt in one of Tennessee’s Democratic bastions after word spread that the school district’s superintendent was endorsing the Republican candidate for governor.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson
Caroline Bauman

“The truth is the public is concerned about why he is supporting a candidate whose vision goes against some of the most critical lines Shelby County Schools advocates against daily,” said school board member Stephanie Love, who added she thinks Hopson can endorse anyone he wants.

She fielded several calls and texts from constituents after Chalkbeat reported Tuesday that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson endorsed GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee.

It’s unusual that any superintendent would endorse a candidate for governor. It’s even more unusual that a Memphis leader who works for a traditionally Democratic base would back a Republican candidate, who typically would not agree on key points about supporting urban education. Hopson and Lee have more than a few divergent views on hot-button education issues that impact funding and student learning, such as private school tuition vouchers and expanding pre-K.

Hopson and the school board, for example, have resisted funneling state dollars to private school tuition for students from low-income families, a position Hopson reiterated in his endorsement of Lee. Lee, who graduated from Tennessee public schools, has been open to the idea, saying parents should not be restricted in their school choices.

“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,” Lee said in a survey by Chalkbeat.

Lee touted Hopson’s support during a debate Tuesday in Memphis.

Others in the city looked beyond education to other issues that impact students, their families, and staff.

“We both believe that all kids should have access to a quality education and that we have to continue to find ways to...

Posted by Chalkbeat Tennessee on Wednesday, October 3, 2018

“We both believe that all kids should have access to a quality education and that we have to continue to find ways to...

Posted by Chalkbeat Tennessee on Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Hopson has lamented the impact of stricter enforcement of immigration laws in Memphis, which was the site of raids last summer that kept many students at home for fear their parents would be deported if they entered school property.

“It breaks my heart that we have families that are literally afraid to show up at school to participate,” Hopson told school board members and immigrant advocacy groups last year. To quell fears, school board members signed a public declaration last year, detailing protections for undocumented students.

Lee has endorsed a recent state law that compels local law enforcement officials to collaborate with federal immigration officials, which he said makes Tennessee residents safer. When combined with a constitutional ban on school staff sharing information about student immigration status, the state law puts officers stationed at schools in an awkward position.

Still others wondered why Hopson was endorsing any candidate at all.

“We both believe that all kids should have access to a quality education and that we have to continue to find ways to...

Posted by Chalkbeat Tennessee on Wednesday, October 3, 2018

In his explanation of his endorsement, Hopson stressed his personal interactions with Lee when he first was considering a run for governor. The main similarities between the two men, he said, were their positions on de-emphasizing testing in evaluating student performance, boosting teacher pay, and increasing the number of ways districts choose to improve struggling schools.

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