Education was front and center in the debate Tuesday night between Williamson County businessman Bill Lee and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

“It’s critically important that every single Tennessee student, every kid in Tennessee has access to a quality education through their school system,” said Lee, a Republican. He added that Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson supports his campaign.

Lee, 58, praised the Innovation Zone schools in SCS, struggling schools being turned around with new leadership and more autonomy from the district. “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 education system?’”

Dean, a Democrat, said it was time for the state to address how schools are funded and to fund both rural and urban areas based on their needs. “You’ve got to offer more services, more support in the areas where kids need it…. I don’t think anyone can argue that Tennessee overfunds its schools,” said Dean, 62.

Tennessee’s two largest districts — Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools — are suing the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education.

The hourlong debate was the first of three scheduled meetings between the Republican and Democratic nominees. The winner in the Nov. 6 general election will succeed Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Using public dollars for private schools

Differences in education policies quickly emerged between the candidates Tuesday, notably on the issue of school vouchers. Lee supports using taxpayer dollars to attend  private schools; Dean does not, saying vouchers undermine public education.

“I think vouchers actually take money out of the public school system, moves it into a private system, and there’s no guarantee of the quality of those schools,” Dean said. “The states that have done that have real problems.”

Lee didn’t respond when Dean pointed out his opponent’s support of vouchers. But Lee has previously said he supports private school vouchers, charter schools and other education choices for parents.

Training future workers

Both said an educated workforce is critical to Tennessee’s economic success.

“For education we need to be a state that’s producing more college graduates, but also have to recognize that not everyone will go to college,” Dean said.

More vocational training is needed in high school, more technical colleges are needed for those degrees, and partnerships and apprenticeships with businesses need to be expanded, Dean added.

Lee said that most of the 200 employees at his heating, air-conditioning, electrical, and plumbing business are skilled tradespeople, and he can’t fill the job openings.  “I know all too well how desperately we need to develop workforce and we need to do it through our educational system.”

The crowd cheers during the debate between Tennessee gubernatorial candidates Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee at the University of Memphis’ Michael D. Rose Theater in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday.
PHOTO CREDIT: Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal

He added that his company started a trade school 10 years ago and has trained more than 1,000 people. “We need to do that in high schools all across Tennessee.”

How to pay teachers more

The candidates agreed teachers in Tennessee should be paid more.

“How do you fund that?” Lee asked. “That’s why it’s important that you understand how to manage a budget from a corporation to a state government. You fund what you need and not what you want, and you find that by managing a budget.”

Dean agreed, saying “It’s exactly that — you manage a government budget the way I did as mayor.”

Better handling of TNReady

Both candidates said changes were needed to fix the widespread problems of overseeing student testing in Tennessee.

Dean said Tennessee has a testing culture that needs to be reigned in. Testing, he said, should help teachers evaluate how students are performing rather than punish teachers. “We need to have standards, but the [TNReady] tests don’t have credibility.” 

Lee said that the state needs to do a “reset” on TNReady testing, not simply changing the vendor that administers the test, but rethinking how student performance is measured. He clarified later with reporters that he is not necessarily advocating halting testing.

Creating universal pre-K

Both said early childhood education is important, but they disagreed on how to improve it.

Lee said better teacher training programs in early childhood education are needed and nonprofits need to work with the school systems. “I’m always the guy who believes that government is not the answer.”

Talking to reporters later, Lee was hesitant about expanding prekindergarten unless it is high quality and effective.

Dean advocated for quality, universal pre-K. “If education is our No. 1 priority and if our challenge is to create a workforce and if our challenge is to make sure that our kids succeed whether in college or in a technical program, then this is important and we should put the dollars into it.”

The candidates face off again Oct. 9 in Kingsport and Oct. 12 in Nashville.