Memphis schools superintendent backs Republican Bill Lee for governor

The leader of Tennessee’s largest school district is throwing his support behind Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Lee would be “open-minded and solutions-oriented” on issues important to him such as “improving testing, raising teacher pay, supporting students’ social and emotional needs and adopting multiple strategies to improve public education in Tennessee.”

“We both believe that all kids should have access to a quality education and that we have to continue to find ways to better support teachers,” Hopson told Chalkbeat. “We also believe in the turnaround efforts happening in our iZone and that districts should continue to search for innovative ways to support chronically underperforming schools.”

Hopson’s endorsement is the first for the Memphis education leader, who was also superintendent when Gov. Bill Haslam ran for re-election in 2014. Memphis reliably votes Democrat in an otherwise Republican state and has been at odds with the Republican legislature and administration on several education issues, but Hopson has in recent years attempted to thaw the often contentious relationship.

Lee, a businessman and farmer, touted Hopson’s support during a debate Tuesday against his opponent Karl Dean, a Democrat and former Nashville mayor.

Lee praised the Innovation Zone, a school improvement program of Shelby County Schools’ design that has boosted test scores for students at chronically low-performing schools in impoverished neighborhoods.

Lee noted that in the last five years (Hopson’s tenure as superintendent), the school district has gone from 69 schools on the priority list to 27 — some were taken over by the state, others were closed, but nearly 20 were improved by the district.

“There’s been profound improvement by addressing changes in the model,” he said referring to the iZone. “When I’m governor I want to go to every struggling school district and say, ‘What is your idea of your innovation zone to transform your educational system?’

Hopson said Lee reached out to him to meet about a year and a half ago when Lee was considering running for governor.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government and education issues,” Hopson told Chalkbeat. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Hopson recently accepted Lee’s request for him to be in his West Tennessee group to advise him on education issues. However, the five-year leader of the Memphis district was quick to point out he was not positioning himself for a state role if Lee is elected in November.

“I am not angling for a job and I certainly am not planning on running for public office,” he said. “We have a lot of positive momentum at Shelby County Schools right now and have lots of work to do.”

There are still a few diversions between Lee and Hopson on education issues. Hopson re-emphasized his yearslong stance against public funding for private school tuition, a measure Lee supports and that some lawmakers have pushed to approve for nearly a decade.

“I am unaware of any statistically significant evidence that demonstrates that vouchers improve student outcomes for low income students,” Hopson said. “Along with our (school) board and other districts, I have advocated against vouchers for years.”

Lee said recently he was hesitant about expanding prekindergarten unless it is high quality and effective. Hopson has touted pre-K as a big driver in the district’s recent gains in literacy among young students.

On arming teachers with guns, Lee supports the idea, while Hopson said that would not be a viable prevention against school shootings in Memphis.

Bureau chief Jacinthia Jones contributed to this story.