Three big differences on Tennessee education between Dean and Lee

PHOTO: Ned Jilton/Kingsport Times-News
Democrat Karl Dean makes his point as Republican Bill Lee listens during their Oct. 9 gubernatorial debate in Kingsport. The candidates' third and final debate will be on Oct. 12 in Nashville.

While the first two debates have been polite and cordial between Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee, sharp differences are emerging on hot-button education issues in the race to be Tennessee’s next governor.

The successor to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will have the chance to shape the state’s policies for K-12 public schools in significant ways. Voters have told pollsters that education will be one of their top priorities when they cast their ballots on Nov. 6.

Both candidates agree on the need to make teacher pay more competitive — and to take closer looks at the state’s troubled testing program and the state-run district for improving low-performing schools.

But as they prepare for their final televised debate on Friday evening in Nashville, the candidates clearly don’t agree on three significant issues. The positions are based on what Dean, a lawyer and former mayor of Nashville, and Lee, a businessman and farmer from Williamson County, have said during their first two faceoffs, as well as on candidate surveys.

1. Using public dollars for private schools

The use of taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition has been debated for more than a decade in the legislature, but such proposals have been consistently fended off by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans.

The current governor said he’d sign voucher legislation if lawmakers passed it, but they never did and he didn’t champion the policy shift as research showed mixed results on the impact of vouchers on students.

That climate could change if Lee becomes governor. A graduate of public schools who sent his children to a mix of public, private, and home schools, the Republican nominee has praised policies that give parents more school choices for their kids. Lee has said that vouchers have potential, but he has sidestepped specific questions about such programs.

Dean has seized on the voucher issue as a pivotal difference between him and his opponent and this week released a TV ad suggesting that the policy would undermine public education.

“Funding has always been an issue, but we should do nothing to take away from the strength of public education,” Dean said during their second debate in Kingsport.

He went on to talk about his support for nonprofit charter schools as mayor of Nashville from 2007 to 2015, but characterized vouchers as a different animal altogether.

“I have the scars on my back from my work in education reform,” Dean said, “but I do not believe in vouchers because vouchers actually take public dollars and put them into a private education system.”

2. Expanding early childhood education access

Both candidates want to improve the quality of publicly funded preschool programs across Tennessee, but have a different timetable for expanding access beyond the state’s lower-income families.

Dean advocates for universal pre-K programs, while Lee is cool to that idea.

“I’m always the guy who believes that government is not the answer,” Lee said during their first debate in Memphis.

Dean said investing more dollars in early childhood education makes sense if education is the No. 1 priority in a state that wants to prepare all children for success in the classroom and ultimately the future of work.

“That would be something that I would try to fund as quickly as I could,” Dean said of universal pre-K.

But Lee says that approach is premature in light of a landmark five-year study released in 2015 by Vanderbilt University. Researchers found that, while helpful in the early years, participating in the state’s public programs could actually negatively impact students as they advance through school — a shocking finding that ignited new efforts to step up pre-K quality across Tennessee.

“I believe we owe it to taxpayers and parents to focus first on how we can improve quality to ensure that any gains are sustainable,” Lee told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “That begins by working with our state universities and colleges of education to ensure they are driving quality training for early childhood educators, while at the same time working with local education agencies to set goals for improvement and identify best practices across the state.”

3. Arming educators in schools

A proposal to give some teachers handguns and train them on firearms fizzled this year in the legislature under opposition from the current governor, who instead spearheaded additional investments in school security.

But Lee, who has been endorsed by Haslam, thinks that arming teachers could help prevent mass school shootings like the one that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, last February.

“We protect our banks with guns, we protect our judges, we even protect our governor. But we leave our children defenseless in gun-free zones,” Lee says on his campaign website. “We should absolutely allow a qualified and vetted teacher to make the choice to be a part of the solution.”

Dean believes that arming teachers would be a big mistake.

“Putting guns in the classroom would create more problems and concerns,” said the former public defender. “The common sense approach would be to provide school districts with the resources they need for trained law enforcement and school resource officers. Of the hundreds of educators I’ve met during his time as mayor and on the campaign trail, the overwhelming consensus is that teachers want to teach. They do not want to be armed.”

Read our candidate surveys: Here’s what Dean and Lee say on public education

With less than a month to go until Election Day, polls show Lee with a solid lead over Dean in a state that leans mostly Republican.

The third debate is taking place on the campus of Belmont University and will be broadcast live beginning at 7 p.m. Central Time on Nexstar Media Group affiliates statewide.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton, Kingsport Times-News
Voters listen to the second debate in Kingsport.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.