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.”

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year