Governor Bill Lee will give his first State of the State address on Monday, March 4, 2019. The speech is highly anticipated, as it will signal to the state the administration’s priorities for the immediate future. It is where campaign promises, either become realities or go to die. He will undoubtedly address issues across the board, from roads to mental health to criminal justice, and all things in between. My interest will be squarely on public education.
What do I expect the Governor to say about education?
- His administration will focus on getting students ready for work.
- He will work to strengthen the public education system.
- He will look for innovative and student-centered strategies for public education.
How will he do that? Here is what I suggest he might say on Monday night:
He will stress the need to build better connections between labor and education. This will mean facilitating improved linkage between school districts, community and technical colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and local industry. Meaning the state must assess our progress towards the Drive to 55 Goal. Which may include outreach to middle school students about their goals and aspirations. This is likely why one of the first assignments given to the new Education Commissioner, Penny Schwinn, has been to meet with students. Likewise, we will want secondary students to start thinking about their career. Governor Lee will probably push toward greater access to high-quality dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities in technical fields across our state. Work-based learning may be referenced. Governor Lee sees this as an opportunity to help students develop the practical abilities that help them perform in project-based environments, learn to work with others, and grow the discipline needed for success in a competitive workplace. This will require new partnerships between industry and our schools, and may facilitate a more concrete connection between labor and education, which is a direction that the federal government has taken the past few years. The state will also need to expand and improve offerings in STEM.
Governor Lee will likely continue to highlight the work of his predecessors, namely Governor Bredesen and Governor Haslam, in looking at ways to strengthen the foundations of our public education system. It is uncertain if Pre-K will be included. I would argue that he will look at some of the efforts underway and consult with State Representative Bill Dunn on this matter. All success in public education hinges on quality instruction, so it begins with our educators. We all agree that every student deserves highly effective teachers and administrators. So, it would be no surprise to hear the Governor talk about his plan to better develop a pipeline to secure educators here in Tennessee. Compensation is the key to recruitment and retention. Our teacher compensation model needs to be competitive nationally. I expect the Governor to send a message to educators that he recognizes and appreciates their efforts, and he will work to see they are paid for their efforts. I also expect that the Governor will stress the need to build upon Governor Haslam’s efforts in literacy. We know that school safety will also be a priority, as well as the need for additional school counselors. It is important that focus in counseling goes beyond mere college and career, but also into helping students with mental health issues—-especially children who have experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Governor Lee must address the testing issue. Too many policymakers and stakeholders have been waiting on a message from the governor about how he plans to improve our assessment system, to ensure that our metrics are empowering and informing, not inhibiting quality instruction, while providing accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students.
On the innovation front, the question is, will he or won’t he bring up parental choice, specifically regarding school vouchers and/or education savings accounts? The administration has signaled more of a wait and see approach thus far. If he plans to bring up school choice, it is more likely to be done in his first term. There has been some indication that the votes are simply not there for a proposal in the Tennessee General Assembly. The Governor is more likely to discuss changes he envisions in creating a modern high school. He is correct that for the last 50 years the way high school has educated students has largely remained unchanged. He may suggest that it is time to embrace new, flexible school models in our high schools. This means he must also discuss supporting locally-driven flexibility and innovation. On the campaign trail, he argued for the need to break down the barriers that have held our teachers, school leaders, and school districts back from creative solutions to the unique challenges of their communities. I would not be surprised to see something like innovation grants from the state for our districts. The question is whether he is willing to make some adjustments to testing, like a pilot project that allows some districts to use the ACT, ACT Aspire, or SAT Suites as a means of assessment in high performing districts. Lee understands when we empower school leaders to bring new solutions to the table and hold them accountable for results, we all win. By piloting innovative approaches that encourage our schools and their communities to work together and design solutions without bureaucratic hurdles, he could send a huge message across the state. Hopefully, Governor Lee will grab the bull by the horns on school finance and discuss the possibilities of a school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. Because of our modern educational mission, priorities, and strategies, businessman Governor Lee understands better than most policymakers the required formula that will support teachers, fund facilities, and facilitate innovation and technology, while looking to better connect K-12 education with workforce needs.
I expect the speech of a lifetime from Governor Lee on Monday night. The State of the State is his one opportunity to lay out for all Tennesseans why we are the best state in the nation for education and in turn, the best place to raise a family. Tennessee continues to be a state that is moving forward.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.