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Gov. Bill Lee wants to ‘make the most of the next four years’ on education. Here are ideas from Tennesseans.

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Gov. Bill Lee visits during a tour of Lara Kendall Elementary School in Lake County in northwest Tennessee on October 17, 2022.

State of Tennessee

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has promised that education will be a centerpiece of his second term in office.

In his final campaign ad for reelection, he told parents and teachers “you have my word that we’ll make the most of the next four years.”

But what should that look like?

On the campaign trail, the Republican governor offered few specifics beyond promising to build on his first-term education agenda, which included more education choices for parents, more vocational training options for students, and more money toward teacher pay.

So we asked our readers, as well as some policymakers and education advocates, for their ideas on what Tennessee should prioritize as Lee ramps up for another four years in office.

Here’s what they told us.

“Instead of funneling money to voucher projects, Gov. Lee and Tennessee’s legislature should fully fund our public schools so that students have the technology, resources, and services they need to succeed. That means paying teachers, counselors, nurses, and school staff fair salaries and arming our teachers with the teaching materials and supplies they need to teach, not arming them with guns.” — Rev. Aaron Marble, pastor, Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville

“Teachers must be at the table to give their recommendations and feedback as our state continues to reimagine education. We can leverage our experiences to transform and shape working conditions, learning opportunities, and teacher retention practices while we prioritize our students’ academic growth and achievement.” — Melissa Collins, a second grade teacher in Memphis and Tennessee’s 2022-23 Teacher of the Year 

“Making the most of the next four years looks like 100% of students reading at or above grade level, true (funding) equity for Nashville, and a state mandate that requires districts to offer an exit ramp with better options for families whose children attend (low-performing) priority schools.” — Sonya Thomas, executive director, Nashville Propel parents group  

“Making the most of the next four years looks like teachers being paid at competitive rates, smaller classroom sizes, meaningful student mental health support from counselors and social workers, and reinforcing our efforts to boost literacy and academic performance. That’s going to take a concerted effort for students who face multiple risk factors, such as poverty, lack of parental involvement or behavioral issues. Ideally, schools that serve under-resourced communities would be designated as community schools and would have the resources to provide multi-generational social and educational support for students and their families.” — Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, vice-chair, Tennessee’s Senate Education Committee 

“By the end of third grade, the vast majority of our students should be able to read on grade level. We need to strengthen basic mathematics for all grades. There should be virtually no need for remedial education upon entrance to a two- or four-year institution.” — Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, deputy speaker 

“We must do everything we can to recruit, retain, and develop highly effective teachers, since they are the key to student success. Pay is an important aspect, and we need to increase teachers compensation closer to the national average. We should promote teaching as a desirable career choice by trusting teachers to do their jobs and providing them the autonomy to practice their craft. Provisions for wraparound services for students, including behavior management and mental health, should be an integral part of the budget to reduce instructional barriers and roadblocks that negatively affect teaching and learning.” — Mike Winstead, director, Maryville City Schools 

“Success in education over the next four years means the expansion of educational options so that every family has access to a quality education that meets their individual needs.” — Justin Owen, executive director, Beacon Center of Tennessee 

“Educators have not felt supported by state policymakers in recent years, particularly by a lack of engagement and communication. If we continue on this path, we’ll continue to see a revolving door of educators, frustrated parents, and the emergence of a two-tier education system that no longer serves all students. I would like very much to be part of the solution that restores the hope of public education for all children with state leaders.” — JC Bowman, executive director, Professional Educators of Tennessee

“Making the most of the next four years means working to ensure all Tennessee students have access to a well-rounded, fact-based public education, regardless of their ZIP code. To accomplish this, the state must fund our public schools at a higher level. Our students need updated textbooks, access to technology and, most importantly, a qualified committed educator in every classroom.” — Tanya Coats, president, Tennessee Education Association  

“We need to support the whole child through socio-emotional programs, expanded course offerings, and enhanced literacy efforts. Taxpayer funds should be kept in public schools so that no student is left behind. And we need a more collaborative spirit that listens to the people on the ground who are doing the work.” — Althea Greene, board chair, Memphis-Shelby County Schools 

“The next four years are critical in overcoming learning loss that was documented recently by the results of the first national tests since the pandemic hit. At the same time, Tennessee is facing unprecedented economic growth, so our adults of tomorrow must be ready to meet this opportunity. Together, we must build a stronger sustainable teacher pipeline for high-quality instruction; focus on high-quality literacy instruction, particularly in the early grades; and improve Tennessee’s college-going rate.” — Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, chairman, House Education Committee 

“We should invest three times the current amount in traditional public education by paying teachers more and making sure public schools have the resources needed such as reading/math specialists, nurses, counselors, etc. We need to put more emphasis on learning and support for children from birth through pre-K to make sure children are better prepared to succeed when they start school.” — Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, chairman, House Democratic Caucus 

“Our education agenda must be rooted in the idea of opportunity for all, which should include a greater focus on supporting the needs of public education on a local level, financial support for improved mental health facilities within public schools, and elevating the teaching profession to not only attract the best, but keep the best.” — Keys Fillauer, president, Tennessee School Boards Association; school board chairman, Oak Ridge Schools

“Tennessee can make the most of the next four years by solving the college enrollment and completion crisis. Only half of Tennessee’s high school graduates enrolled in college last year, the lowest rate since 2011 when that data was first publicly reported. The numbers are even more deeply alarming for students of color and those in low-income communities. In order to end generational poverty and ensure economic mobility for every family in Tennessee, we need a sustained and serious focus on eliminating inequities along our education continuum, including expanding the number of early childhood seats; increasing student achievement and closing gaps in proficiency; strengthening the pipeline of strong, diverse and supported teachers; and removing financial and other barriers to postsecondary institutions. Debates about censuring teachers, banning books and punishing librarians are dividing our communities and distracting us from the work at hand.” — Gini Pupo-Walker, state director, The Education Trust in Tennessee 

“Making the most of the next four years will require us to rethink and transform the pathway for students from education to work. Today in Tennessee, nearly 400,000 jobs are open, and at least 60 percent of jobs in our state require some type of training or education beyond high school. But fewer than 40 percent of students are leaving high school prepared for postsecondary education, and only 48 percent are completing any kind of education beyond a high school diploma. Transforming our workforce will require setting a renewed state education attainment goal that is aligned to workforce needs; weaving postsecondary education and training into high school; supporting students in their transition to college; better utilizing education-to-workforce data to inform policy and practice; and creating stronger systems of accountability for higher education.” — David Mansouri, president and CEO, State Collaborative on Reforming Education 

“The way we improve education is to have the best teachers in front of our kids every day, and we need to support our teachers by valuing what they do and providing them the best salaries in the Southeast. Also, it’s important for public dollars to stay in public schools, not in private ones.” — Dale Lynch, executive director, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

“We must make sure our students get a strong foundation for learning. In the coming years, I would like to strengthen tools and programs that focus on student readiness such as rising-K summer camp and improving third-grade grade literacy rates. We should build on our efforts to have a student-centered approach to education and empower parents to make education decisions for the specific needs of their child. Quality teachers are a cornerstone of a strong education system, and we need to find ways to attract and retain good teachers for our schools.” — Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin  

“We have the opportunity to be more flexible with scheduling and programming to provide more student opportunities at every level. I trust we will be able to raise the level of trust and respect for all educators.” — Danny Weeks, director of Dickson County Schools and Tennessee’s 2022-23 Superintendent of the Year 

Got a suggestion that wasn’t covered here? Email us at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org. 

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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