Here’s how Lee, Dean compare on education in the race to be Tennessee’s next governor

The two candidates left in the race to succeed Gov. Bill Haslam agree that teachers should get more pay, state testing should be reviewed, and a college degree isn’t for everyone as Tennessee seeks to equip students for the jobs of tomorrow.

But their priorities for “school choice” and school funding look different. And important nuances contrast their positions on issues like publicly funded early childhood programs and using student test scores in teacher evaluations.

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Williamson County businessman Bill Lee won their primary races Thursday and will face off on Nov. 6 in the general election.

The victor will follow Haslam, a term-limited Republican governor who inherited and embraced a blueprint for student improvement developed under Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen as part of Tennessee’s $500 million Race to the Top award in 2010.

READ: In his final months as governor, Haslam reflects on his education legacy

Stay the course?

Dean, 62, the Democratic nominee and a lawyer, says his administration generally would stick with that plan which is based on 1) raising academic standards; 2) adopting an aligned test to measure student progress; and 3) using the results to hold students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable.

“We have done a great job of raising standards and expectations so that students will be ready for college and career,” Dean told Chalkbeat in a recent survey of candidates on education issues. “We now need to give educators the resources and supports they need to make sure students master our higher standards.”

Lee, 58, the Republican nominee and engineer who owns a $250 million heating, ventilation and plumbing company, agrees that high standards are important, but says it’s “how you get there that is really the question.”

“I think we can push for high standards while reducing the testing burden and focusing on a testing protocol that is more meaningful to our teachers and parents,” Lee said.

Gov. Bill Haslam will soon finish eight years in office. (

As governor for eight years, Haslam has held firm to the controversial policy of including student growth scores from state tests in teacher evaluations — and believes it’s been key to Tennessee’s achievement gains on national tests since 2011. However, he worries the policy could crumble under a new administration and General Assembly due to the state’s widespread problems administering its 3-year-old TNReady assessment.

To see the candidates’ full statements about testing, teacher evaluations, and more, read their answers to our survey questions here.

Voters care

Voters have told pollsters that education is the top issue in this year’s gubernatorial race.

“Tennessee’s next governor and General Assembly will face many decisions that can either advance or slow student achievement progress,” said Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also known as SCORE, a nonpartisan advocacy and research organization founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Those decisions, she said, will include how to improve low-performing schools; support effective teaching; help all students be ready for college, career, and jobs; and administer tests that tell educators, parents, and communities how their students are doing.

State lawmakers also will play a big part in the direction Tennessee goes. And the Legislature and its leadership will look significantly different beginning in 2019 due to a large exodus of members, including the retirement of two House education committee chairmen and the exit of the House speaker who appoints members to those panels.

Other issues

Setting funding for schools is one of the state’s biggest responsibilities, but whether the money is adequate is being reviewed in the courts due to lawsuits filed against Tennessee by three of its four largest school systems.

Dean said his administration would propose spending increases for schools, while Lee wants to appoint an inspector general to “seek out waste and abuse in the system.”

On “school choice,” both candidates like high-quality, nonprofit charter schools, but are split over whether Tennessee should allow vouchers or other incentives that channel public money to pay for private school tuition — an idea repeatedly rejected by the Legislature over the last decade.

As Nashville’s mayor from 2007 to 2015, Dean supported publicly financed, privately operated charter schools, but adds that they are no panacea and don’t necessarily work for rural communities. He is adamantly opposed to tuition vouchers.

Lee says he’s more interested in the quality of schools than who owns the buildings and is open to voucher-like programs. “When parents have the freedom to choose, not only is their child’s trajectory improved, but the introduction of choice and competition raises the bar for everyone,” he told Chalkbeat.

As for the state’s pre-K program, both candidates want to prioritize improving its quality, which was called into question by a major study by Vanderbilt University. Dean has campaigned to expand pre-K access and after-school enrichment opportunities as well.

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum.

This will be the first election since 1994 that Tennesseans will cast ballots in the same year in competitive gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. Bredesen, who preceded Haslam as governor and spearheaded Tennessee’s Race to the Top award, is running against U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.