next steps

Bill Lee is Tennessee’s next governor. Here’s how he’ll begin to shape education.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee's 50th governor on Tuesday and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19. In between, he faces critical decisions in the transition to a new administration.

A political novice, Republican businessman Bill Lee has defied conventional wisdom to become Tennessee’s next governor. Now he’ll have to show that he can govern, too, over a state that has pioneered education reforms for a decade and climbed national rankings on student achievement.

Lee touted his outsider and business background in cruising to victory Tuesday over former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

A native of tony Williamson County, south of Nashville, he has run a 1,200-employee company there with annual revenues of $250 million.

But as the state’s chief executive, he’ll become the top boss to half as many full-time workers in the Education Department alone. He’ll oversee a $37 billion budget, including more than $6 billion to fund schools. And his administration will cast the vision for policies that will affect about a million public school students, a third of whom come from low-income families.

He’ll also appoint members to a state policy-making board that governs everything from school bus safety to cafeteria nutrition standards to teacher licensure requirements.

While Lee won’t take office until Jan. 19, the transition to his new administration will start immediately. On Wednesday morning, a joint press conference is scheduled at the state Capitol with outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican who has championed education during his eight years in office.

As Lee prepares to take the handoff, his critical early decisions will include picking his education commissioner, developing his first budget for schools, and mapping out a legislative strategy for policy priorities affecting school communities statewide. Having never served in public office before, he will need good people around him.

Job One will be to assemble his own staff in the governor’s office, including policy advisers on K-12 and higher education, and eventually to appoint an education chief to execute his priorities for students. But among cabinet picks, Lee likely will hire his commissioner of finance and administration first. After all, the governor-elect will only have a few months before he must propose his first spending plan to the General Assembly, which is required by law to pass a balanced budget before adjourning next spring.

Fortunately, the state is in good financial condition, and the Haslam administration has been preparing a budget framework to get Lee started. The outgoing governor told reporters recently that the spending plan will be about 90 percent complete when he exits, leaving discretionary items up to the new governor and his advisers because those are “fundamental policy issues.”

How Lee fills in the budgetary blanks — for instance, whether he proposes to raise teacher pay as discussed on the campaign trail, invest more in school security as Haslam did this year, or allocate more money for school and testing technology as outlined during a recent education “listening tour” — will say a lot about the new governor’s priorities.

The next General Assembly already will have convened by the time Lee takes office, but he’ll want to begin figuring out soon how to work with lawmakers on policy matters. On the campaign trail, Lee spoke passionately about the need to elevate career and technical education and frequently referenced the trade school operated by his own Franklin-based electrical, plumbing, and HVAC business.

Bill Lee is president of Franklin-based Lee Co., a $250 million home services business with more than 1,200 employees. (Photo by Bill Lee for Governor)

A product of public schools who chose a mix of public, private, and homeschooling for his own kids, Lee also talked about giving parents more choices for their children. He bolstered that talk — and raised eyebrows among traditional public education diehards — with his pick of Tony Niknejad as policy director for his campaign. Niknejad is the former state director of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school voucher group once chaired by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Still, Lee offered few outright promises or details on such policies during his months of campaigning.

“On most issues, he has been relatively circumspect. I think a lot remains to be seen,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of policy and programs of Conexión Américas, a nonprofit advocacy group for Latino families in Nashville.

Some uncertainty is inherent in any transition of power. One thing that’s for sure, however, is that Lee and his team will be inundated quickly with requests for meetings with stakeholders invested in Tennessee public education.

“On Nov. 7, regardless of the outcome, we will be reaching out to our governor-elect to begin initiating conversations and to begin establishing a relationship,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers organization.

While TEA’s political action committee endorsed Dean for governor, Brown says her group’s expertise transcends party affiliation, especially as the state seeks to address problems with testing and teacher evaluation programs, among other things.

“Teacher confidence in our state is at a low point,” she said. “We are an organization of practitioners, and we are in a unique place to connect state leadership with teachers everywhere.”

"On most issues, he has been relatively circumspect. I think a lot remains to be seen."Gini Pupo-Walker, Conexión Américas

The governor’s office, meanwhile, has been working on transition plans for months. Teams in every department have been generating reports, data, and analyses to pass on to the next administration, and the Education Department has been especially prolific. Among its reviews are the status and impact of reforms launched beginning in 2010 under former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat whose administration raised academic standards and initiated new systems for measuring student achievement and holding students, educators, schools, and districts accountable for results. Haslam has stood by that overhaul.


Here’s what Haslam worries about on education under a new administration


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said her team’s transition reports delve into everything from reading and school safety initiatives to shifting the state’s testing program to one or more new companies beginning next fall. The Haslam administration also is recommending continued increases for teacher pay.

“That’s just good stewardship of the resources we’ve already put into initiatives,” McQueen said of the reports. “We’re saying this is what’s worked and needs to move forward, and these are things where you’ll want to step back and see if that’s the right direction to move.”

She added: “We want a seamless transition.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”