Facebook Twitter
Republican gubernatorial candidate shakes hands with a teacher at the Memphis charter Libertas School.

Republican gubernatorial candidate shakes hands with a teacher at the Memphis charter Libertas School.

Tennessee’s Republican candidate for governor touts school choice, testing changes

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to improving education in the state, says Bill Lee, Tennessee’s Republican candidate for governor.

“There’s no one answer to this — it’s going to be a broad approach,” Lee, a fourth generation cattle farmer and president of a $250 million home care services company, told Chalkbeat during a brief interview Wednesday.

Lee was in Memphis as part of a 95-county campaign tour, which included a stop at the Memphis charter Libertas School.

“I’m a person who doesn’t believe that it’s so much the type of school [that a child attends], as it is a parent’s choice in education that is important,” said Lee, whose own children were homeschooled, and attended public and private schools.

“When a parent has a choice about what school to go to, then it brings a level of accountability and competition that raises the whole system,” he added.

Lee, who will face Democrat Karl Dean in November’s election, did not say whether he supported vouchers as part of his efforts to promote school choice. Instead, he said he was focused on finding out what works.

“People say to me frequently that if we increase charters that it’s going to have a negative impact on public schools. What I’m afraid of doing is the same thing that we’ve been doing for 25 years,” he said, noting the importance of challenging “the status quo” in Tennessee, which ranks in the bottom half of American states when it comes to student achievement. 

In a Chalkbeat candidate questionnaire earlier this summer, Dean, an attorney and former mayor of Nashville, stressed his opposition to school vouchers.

“I have been and will remain opposed to private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools,” he said last month.

Regarding the continued problems with administering standardized tests online in Tennessee, Lee said he believes the state has a “vendor problem,” which he said has made it difficult to judge improvements in education. Technical problems have hampered online testing two of the past three years, including this year, when state lawmakers blocked test scores from being used in teacher evaluations and student grades. In June, state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced plans to hire another company to take over its troubled testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year.

“As a business person, I know that you cannot improve what you don’t measure and so measurement is important,” Lee said. “But I also know if you measure the wrong thing or you measure too much then you actually have a negative outcome.”

He said he wants to involve teachers and parents in evaluating the process, including asking the questions: “are we testing the appropriate amount and do we test for the right things?”

Similarly, Dean told Chalkbeat in a recent interview that the next governor and education commissioner needs to be open and honest with families and educators about the challenges in state testing and reach out to them for answers.

“Listening and valuing the voices across the state, along with transparency around the testing process, will be priorities for my administration,” Dean said.