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.

PHOTO: George Walker IV/The Tennessean

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.

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.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.