The political action committee for Tennessee’s largest teachers organization on Tuesday endorsed Democrat Karl Dean for governor over his Republican opponent, Bill Lee.
The Tennessee Education Association PAC cited Dean’s record on school funding and his opposition to vouchers that use taxpayer money to pay for tuition to private or religious schools.
“Karl Dean has a record of increasing education funding as mayor of Nashville and has made improving K-12 funding a centerpiece of his campaign for governor,” TEA President Beth Brown said in a statement. “Increasing the state’s per-student investment is a top priority for TEA and one of the reasons Dean has earned our endorsement.”
The announcement comes as Dean lags significantly behind Lee in the polls with less than a month before voters go to the polls on November 6 — and one week after Lee received the stunning endorsement of the superintendent of schools in Memphis, home to the state’s largest district and a Democratic stronghold in a mostly red state.
TEA’s backing of Dean was not a surprise, however. The teachers group has endorsed Democratic candidates for governor for at least 40 years of general elections, although it has recommended GOP candidates such as U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander to its parent organization, the National Education Association. (TEA backed Democrat Craig Fitzhugh and Republican Beth Harwell in this year’s primary races to replace outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam, who is term-limited.)
Public education has been a major issue on the campaign trail and front-of-mind for voters, as both candidates prepared Tuesday for their second of three debates. Their first debate, held last week in Memphis, touched on some of the very issues that the teachers group spotlighted in its endorsement of Dean.
“Dean is the only gubernatorial candidate who opposes private school vouchers — a hardline issue for TEA,” said Brown, a 38-year-old teacher who this year became one of the youngest TEA members to hold its top office. “Vouchers take critical funding away from public schools and have severely undermined public education in states that have implemented voucher programs.”
Lee, a businessman from Franklin, supports vouchers and is open to other programs that give parents choices beyond traditional public schools. A perennial issue in Tennessee’s Legislature, vouchers have been voted down consistently by mostly Democrats and rural Republicans, albeit by increasingly narrow margins.
TEA also is lobbying for higher teacher pay, improved supports for teachers, and expanding early childhood education — all of which are part of Dean’s platform.
The group’s endorsement came after Dean met with TEA leaders at its Nashville headquarters, as well as with members across the state, according to a spokeswoman for the teachers organization.
Lee did not respond to the group’s requests for a similar meeting, the spokeswoman said in answer to a query from Chalkbeat. A spokeswoman for Lee’s campaign did not immediately comment on the matter.
Now in its 153rd year, the teachers group had almost 29,000 members in 2015-16, down by more than a third from five years earlier after the state stripped away rights to collective bargaining and payroll deductions. TEA officials have been working to rebuild the organization’s base and its influence.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include membership numbers.