In his first speech as the next governor of Tennessee, Republican businessman Bill Lee said incorrectly that the state’s schools are among the worst in the nation.

Making a case for giving parents more choices, Lee declared in his victory speech Tuesday night that the state’s schools “are not where they need to be.”

“Despite the steady improvement that we’ve had over the last few years, Tennessee schools are still at the bottom of schools nationwide,” he told a crowd in Franklin after defeating Democrat and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

In fact, Tennessee has not been at the bottom of national rankings since 2011 when it comes to student performance on the Nation’s Report Card. Considered the gold standard of student assessments for all 50 states, the test has tracked Tennessee’s climb from the mid-40s to solidly in the middle of the pack, prompting its claim of being “the fastest-improving state in the nation.”

On the test’s most recent scores from 2017, Tennessee fourth-graders lost some ground in math but the state still ranked 34th in both fourth-grade math and reading. Tennessee also came in 35th in eighth-grade math and 38th in eighth-grade reading.


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Additionally, Tennessee is not at the bottom of national rankings on the ACT college entrance exam, nor rates for graduating from high school or attending college. On the most recent ACT tests, the state’s students scored record highs for a second straight year.

Asked what education rankings that Lee was referring to in his speech, a campaign spokeswoman did not immediately respond. (The following day, the spokeswoman said Lee “misspoke” from his prepared remarks — and meant to say that Tennessee schools rank in the bottom half of the nation. Read our follow-up story.)

Lee is a product of public schools who sent his own children to a mix of public, private, and home schools in Williamson County, the state’s most affluent county. On the campaign trail, he praised policies that give parents more school choices and said that vouchers — which use public dollars to pay for private schools — have potential in a state that has repeatedly rebuffed voucher legislation.

His victory speech complimented outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the state legislature for moving Tennessee “in the right direction” but also charged that too many students are attending “failing schools.”

“I believe that Tennessee can be a place where every child can receive a first-rate education,” Lee said. “And that’s why when I’m the governor, I’ll be pursuing education reforms that put our students first, working hard to make sure that parents have every option to give their kids a shot at a bright future.“

As governor, Lee can significantly shape public education in a state that has pioneered reforms since 2010 as part of a $500 million federal award. He takes office on Jan. 19.

You can watch Lee’s full victory speech below.