In his victory speech, Gov.-elect Bill Lee meant to say that Tennessee schools are in the bottom half of the nation — not at the bottom, a spokeswoman clarified on Wednesday.
“Throughout Bill’s campaign, he has noted that Tennessee schools rank in the bottom half in the nation and we must work to improve education. He simply misspoke from his prepared remarks,” spokeswoman Laine Arnold told Chalkbeat.
The clarification came the day after the Republican businessman spoke to a cheering crowd in Franklin — and a statewide televised audience — after cruising to victory over Democrat and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the race to become Tennessee’s 50th governor.
Prefacing his pledge to provide parents with more school choices, he told the crowd that the state’s schools “are not where they need to be,” followed by this statement: “Despite the steady improvement that we’ve had over the last few years, Tennessee schools are still at the bottom of schools nationwide.”
Lee’s campaign did not immediately respond to Chalkbeat’s query about the statement. And a subsequent fact check pointed out that — while Tennessee students still have much room for improvement — they have moved solidly from the 40s into the 30s on national rankings of all 50 states since 2011, based on the Nation’s Report Card, considered the gold standard of assessment on student achievement.
Additionally, Tennessee is not at the bottom of national rankings on the ACT college entrance exam, nor on rates for graduating from high school or attending college. On the most recent ACT tests, the state’s students scored record highs for a second straight year.
Still, Lee’s muffed statistic riled stakeholders who have invested blood, sweat, and tears to help Tennessee students achieve academic gains.
“Please get your facts right Governor-elect Lee,” wrote Shirley Raines, president emeritus of the University of Memphis, on a Facebook post garnering chatter.
The discussion comes as supporters and opponents of vouchers — which would use taxpayer money to fund private school tuition — gear up in anticipation of another legislative battle over efforts to start such programs in Tennessee. On the campaign trail, Lee has said that vouchers could give options to parents who don’t want to send their children to “failing schools.”
Lee spoke Wednesday at a joint press conference with outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam but did not address policy specifics or clarify his flub from Tuesday.
“I’m excited about building a team,” Lee said, adding that “we have clear and defined ideas about where we want to go.”