Cato Johnson has spent most of his adult life working in health care, but always has been interested in education. Appointed to the State Board of Education last July by Gov. Bill Haslam, Johnson now is helping to forge Tennessee’s education path, working with the state Department of Education on everything from standards to textbooks.
A Memphis native, Johnson is senior vice president of Methodist Healthcare, a church-affiliated nonprofit health care system based in Memphis with facilities across the Midsouth. Much of his policy work has been focused on health – as vice chairman of the state Health Planning and Advisory Board and chairman of the TennCare Medical Care Advisory Committee. He also has served as chairman and vice chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
In an interview with Chalkbeat, Johnson, 67, discusses how his experience in health care and passion for education will help him better represent students in Memphis.

You’re a native Memphian. What schools did you go to? 

I graduated from Carver High School, then I went to the University of Memphis for undergrad and graduate school.

Other than as a student, what has been your experience with public schools in Memphis?
I was inducted into the Memphis City Schools Hall of Fame. I have served on numerous ad hoc committees for the school system when it was Memphis City Schools. I served on the THEC [Tennessee Higher Education Commission] for several years — I was the chair for one year the vice chair for two years — and I’ve served on the Shelby County Schools Foundation board. My background is in education, in both undergraduate and graduate school, but I never taught.
How does your work in health care translate to education?
One of the things that you realize in health policy and being involved is health care is, at the end of the day, the patient is the center of all you do. In education, it’s no different. The student has to be in the center of all discussions: How do we make sure that we have exceptional standards for our students? That our students will be ready for college or other programs? The second thing is the tremendous importance of the physician, who is going to deliver services to the patient. In education, it’s the teachers and instructors. How do we support them so they can do what they do best, and that’s teach our students at the highest level? We always debate a great deal about what’s best in health care, funding and protocols. But at the end of the day, the patient wants to see you’re doing the best you can do to help him get better. Same goes for education.
What’s surprised you since you started working with the State Board of Education?
Cato Johnson
Cato Johnson

I haven’t really been surprised, having been involved in THEC. I think what I have been the most pleased with is the tremendous dedication of the staff who work with the State Board of Education and the Department of Education – how well prepared everyone is, the research that’s done, the amount of work that’s done, and the scrutiny they give their work. The other thing I’ve been impressed with is the new executive director, Sara Heyburn, and the new commissioner, Candice McQueen. I think they’re going to do great things.

How does being a Memphian impact your work with the State Board of Education?
I think the great impact is when you look at the level of poverty in this community. When you look at the fact that we’re third from the bottom in terms of income, that 28 percent of our citizens live in poverty, that more than 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. When you look at the fact that so many live in very, very dire circumstances, you realize the importance of education – that education is the path to success. It leads me to understand how seriously I take my role as a member of the State Board of Education. This is critically important – what education can do to move a community to another level.
Industries will not move into a city where they do not believe you have a strong school system, or an educated workforce.
What do you expect to be the biggest issues the State Board of Education tackles? 
Standards are extremely important. And I don’t have any doubt that we will continue the debate on choice. How does that work? Is it feasible to talk about this choice versus that choice? In Memphis, we’ll continue to have debates about the I-Zone [Innovation Zone] and the Achievement School District, but one of the things I’m most gratified by is that education is a tremendous priority of this governor, and if we’re going to have strong support for education, the governor must make it a priority.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to maldrich@chalkbeat.org.
Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.
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