With a major shift in leadership happening at the State Capitol, the new chairman of Tennessee’s House Education Committee wants to make sure that the state doesn’t backslide when it comes to public education.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican in office since 2010, was tapped by House Speaker Glen Casada last week to lead the powerful committee, while Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee.

White and Gresham believe that Tennessee’s gains on national tests beginning in 2013 stem from stronger academic standards in classrooms and test score-driven systems for holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable. Both have said they don’t want to see dramatic changes to the state’s school improvement policies.

“There’s always things you can tweak or make better, but we don’t want to kill the things that are working,” White said. “We’ve made so many positive gains in the last eight years under Gov. Bill Haslam that I want to make sure we don’t go backward.”

White, 68, holds an education degree from the University of Memphis and was a science teacher and principal in the 1970s at Harding Academy, a private high school in Memphis, before starting an event business

Before his appointment, he spoke with Chalkbeat about issues on the horizon, Tennessee’s testing dilemma, the buzz on school vouchers under governor-elect Bill Lee, and whether there’s an appetite to invest more money in pre-K. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some of the big issues you expect to tackle this year in the legislature?

We need more alignment between K-12 and higher education with more opportunities for students to pursue dual enrollment [which enables students to take college-level courses while they’re in high school]. We also want more vocational and technical education courses so that students are being introduced to marketable skills during high school. We want more of our students to come out of high school with not only a diploma but also a certificate for a particular skill. If you can get them interested in a skill in high school, students much more likely to move on and, if they like working with their hands and have a certification, maybe go straight to work.

Tennessee has yet to cleanly administer and score its TNReady test during the last three years. Can the state restore the credibility of its testing program?

No superintendent has come to me and said we don’t like the test. They like the data that TNReady generates based on our higher standards. The issue has been online administration. I’m pleased that we’re just testing high school students online this year. I don’t know that elementary grades should ever test online. But for all grades, we’ve got to get testing right this year. We can’t afford another year of problems.

What about the amount of testing? Even with the elimination of two high school exams this school year, many teachers and parents are concerned that students test too much, especially in high school where Tennessee exceeds federal requirements.

We’re going to keep looking at that. Through the work of the state’s testing task force, we eliminated chemistry and English III this school year. But I believe that, if we’re going to test to the highest standards, we’ve got to test to make sure there’s been a full year of growth and that teachers are teaching effectively.


After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee


School vouchers are a perennial issue in the legislature and, with a new governor wanting to give parents more education options, do you think this will be the year that some type of voucher bill passes?

There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet. With the Lee administration being new, I don’t know if they’re going to push it. And even if they do push it, it probably won’t be this year.

I believe in parental choice, but the problem with vouchers moving forward is accountability. We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it. If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.

You’ve been a point person on early childhood education. Is anything happening there?

I’ve talked a lot with Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, and they’re wanting to expand our pre-K programs. I don’t want to lose the conversation around pre-K dollars, but I do think it would be better to think in terms of pre-K through the third grade. Right now only a third of our kids are reading on grade level by third grade, so how do we invest our money up until that milestone grade? I think that would be an easier conversation.

I also think that these are the issues that really matter in Tennessee and are going to lead to improvements. This year in the legislature, I’d like to talk about the things that make a difference and not just sit there and debate whether you like TNReady or not. Those conversations don’t move the needle. It’s old news.