Election 2018

Six things we heard during Tennessee’s first gubernatorial forum on education

PHOTO: Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean
From left: Republican Beth Harwell, Democrat Craig Fitzhugh. Democrat Karl Dean, Republican Bill Lee, and Republican Randy Boyd participate in a Jan. 23 gubernatorial forum on education at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Tennessee voters got their first good look at most candidates for governor during an education forum televised statewide Tuesday evening.

While few sharp differences emerged during the hour-long discussion, the exception was the issue of offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, which split along party lines. Meanwhile, a question about whether the candidates sent their children to public schools provided a glimpse at their personal family choices.

Here are six things we heard during the event at Nashville’s Belmont University:

The teaching profession needs to be supported and rewarded.

Every candidate said they want to boost pay for Tennessee teachers on the heels of two years of increased allocations under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, offered the most direct pledge, calling higher salaries his “No. 1 priority,” while House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, gave a more qualified pledge. “We have now given two back-to-back 4 percent pay increases to our teachers,” Harwell said. “Would I like to do more? Of course. And when the budget allows for that, I will.” On a related note, most candidates said it’s also time to revisit the state’s formula for funding K-12 education.

Credibility in TNReady needs to be restored.

Not every candidate got to answer every question, but those asked about the state’s problem-plagued standardized test spoke of the need to make improvements, not to dump it. “When the scoreboard breaks, you don’t just stop keeping score. You fix the scoreboard,” said Randy Boyd, a Republican businessman from Knoxville. Candidates also spoke of the importance of having an effective measuring stick to hold teachers accountable. “Teachers do not mind accountability; what they want is credibility in that accountability system and they want it to be useful,” Harwell said. “… We have come too far as a state to ever turn back in our accountability system.”

There was consensus that high-quality pre-kindergarten programs are a good investment.

More than two years after a Vanderbilt University study highlighted problems with Tennessee’s public pre-K programs for disadvantaged children, all of the candidates agreed that the focus now should be on lifting the quality of early childhood education, not abandoning it. “Not all pre-K is the same,” said Boyd. “We need to find programs that work well and duplicate those.” Meanwhile, Dean and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, said public pre-K should be expanded.

But there was disagreement over whether to provide in-state tuition for students who are undocumented immigrants.

Republicans said they would not sign legislation that would provide so-called “Dreamers” with the tuition break to attend the state’s higher education institutions, while Democrats said they would. “I’m the only person on this panel who has voted to do that, and I will vote to do that again,” Fitzhugh said of unsuccessful bills in Tennessee’s legislature during recent years. “It is cruel that we do not let these children that have lived in Tennessee all their life have in-state tuition,” he added. Republicans emphasized the letter of the law. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that we would offer something in college tuition to an immigrant that was here illegally that we wouldn’t offer to an American citizen from Georgia,” said Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County.

Education is ultimately about jobs.

PHOTO: George Walker IV/The Tennessean

All of the candidates called for investments in career and technical education that could lead to certifications and jobs. Several highlighted the importance of dual enrollment programs that allow students to earn college-level credits while still in high school. They also discussed the challenge of equipping students to finish college in a state where only one in five high school juniors meet all benchmarks for college readiness. “The key is to seek improvement in K-12,” said Dean. “If students go into college prepared, … they’re much more likely to succeed.”

The candidates’ personal experiences with public education are mixed.

Since funding and overseeing public education is one of the biggest jobs of state government, the forum’s moderators said it was fair game to ask the candidates about their own family decisions on attending public schools. Dean and Harwell said they went to public schools but sent their children to private schools. Boyd said he went to public school and opted for public and private schools for his two sons. Lee said his children have experienced a mix of homeschooling and public and private education. Fitzhugh was the only candidate who said that he and all of his children are products of public schools, and that his grandchildren attend public schools as well.

Five of seven major candidates participated in the forum sponsored by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, Belmont University, USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. Absent were U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican who said she had a scheduling conflict, and Mae Beavers, a Republican and former state senator from Mt. Juliet, who bowed out after her mother died over the weekend.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

the search

As chancellor search continues, Weingarten dismisses Orlando schools chief as ‘Joel Klein type’

PHOTO: Dr. Barbara Jenkins 2013 Award Video/YouTube
Barbara Jenkins has been floated as a possible candidate for New York City Schools Chancellor.

After several months of searching for a new leader for the nation’s largest school system, Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida, emerged this week as a contender for the job.

City Hall is still courting the Orlando schools chief, according to a source. But there are several big reasons why Jenkins might not be New York City’s next school’s chancellor — as well as some unusual behind-the-scenes discussion that could help draft Jenkins or other out-of-state superintendents.

One is that Jenkins has voiced concerns about taking the job, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the search. Some said she signaled weeks ago that she was not interested.

Another is that she may not have the union support that has proven valuable to Mayor Bill de Blasio. She definitely doesn’t have the support of Randi Weingarten, the influential leader of the American Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten told Chalkbeat this week that she was “surprised” to hear Jenkins’ name surface, and compared her to leaders of the so-called education reform movement who have had contentious relationships with teacher unions.

I think that Barbara Jenkins is much more in line with the Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee types than she is in line with the Carmen Fariña types,” Weingarten said, comparing the polarizing former schools chiefs of New York City and Washington, D.C. to the city’s current schools chancellor.

Fariña, who has held the top job since 2014 and announced she was stepping down in December, was brought in partly to undo Klein’s policies and has taken a friendly stance toward the city’s United Federation of Teachers. (UFT President Michael Mulgrew declined to talk about discussions he has had with City Hall about Fariña’s successor.)

A third potential issue: compensation. Jenkins made $310,000 in 2017, according to the Orlando Sentinel, while Fariña’s salary is roughly $235,000. A move could mean Jenkins, who is in her late 50s, would have to forfeit some of her future pension, after spending years in the same district, and contend with the high cost of living in New York City.

Those factors could be a problem for many potential candidates, says Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group. That’s given rise to conversations about whether the chancellor’s compensation could be supplemented — perhaps by a third party, such as an individual who is interested in education. (The Partnership for New York City is not working to find additional funds, she said.)

“It’s understandable that it would be difficult to attract somebody to the city because of our high costs,” Wylde said. “Perhaps that’s something we ought to be trying to address.”

Still, Jenkins generally fits within the profile de Blasio has sketched out for the next schools chief. She has years of experience running a school system with over 200,000 students, and the district has earned praise under her leadership. If chosen, she would be the first black woman to lead New York City’s school system.

Jenkins and Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to comment.

Patrick Wall contributed reporting.