A political novice, Republican businessman Bill Lee has defied conventional wisdom to become Tennessee’s next governor. Now he’ll have to show that he can govern, too, over a state that has pioneered education reforms for a decade and climbed national rankings on student achievement.
Lee touted his outsider and business background in cruising to victory Tuesday over former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.
A native of tiny Williamson County, south of Nashville, he has run a 1,200-employee company there with annual revenues of $250 million.
But as the state’s chief executive, he’ll become the top boss to half as many full-time workers in the Education Department alone. He’ll oversee a $37 billion budget, including more than $6 billion to fund schools. And his administration will cast the vision for policies that will affect about a million public school students, a third of whom come from low-income families.
He’ll also appoint members to a state policy-making board that governs everything from school bus safety to cafeteria nutrition standards to teacher licensure requirements.
While Lee won’t take office until Jan. 19, the transition to his new administration will start immediately. In Wednesday morning press conference, he joined outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican who has championed education during his eight years in office.
As Lee starts to take the handoff, his critical early decisions will include picking his education commissioner, developing his first budget for schools, and mapping out a legislative strategy for policy priorities affecting school communities statewide. Having never served in public office before, he will need good people around him.
Job One will be to assemble his own staff in the governor’s office, including policy advisers on K-12 and higher education, and eventually to appoint an education chief to execute his priorities for students. But among cabinet picks, Lee likely will hire his commissioner of finance and administration first. After all, the governor-elect will only have a few months before he must propose his first spending plan to the General Assembly, which is required by law to pass a balanced budget before adjourning next spring.
Fortunately, the state is in good financial condition, and the Haslam administration has been preparing a budget framework to get Lee started. The outgoing governor told reporters recently that the spending plan will be about 90 percent complete when he exits, leaving discretionary items up to the new governor and his advisers because those are “fundamental policy issues.”
How Lee fills in the budgetary blanks — for instance, whether he proposes to raise teacher pay as discussed on the campaign trail, invest more in school security as Haslam did this year, or allocate more money for school and testing technology as outlined during a recent education “listening tour” — will say a lot about the new governor’s priorities.
The next General Assembly already will have convened by the time Lee takes office, but he’ll want to begin figuring out soon how to work with lawmakers on policy matters. On the campaign trail, Lee spoke passionately about the need to elevate career and technical education and frequently referenced the trade school operated by his own Franklin-based electrical, plumbing, and HVAC business.
A product of public schools who chose a mix of public, private, and homeschooling for his own kids, Lee also talked about giving parents more choices for their children. He bolstered that talk — and raised eyebrows among traditional public education diehards — with his pick of Tony Niknejad as policy director for his campaign. Niknejad is the former state director of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school voucher group once chaired by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Still, Lee offered few outright promises or details on such policies during his months of campaigning.
“On most issues, he has been relatively circumspect. I think a lot remains to be seen,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of policy and programs of Conexión Américas, a nonprofit advocacy group for Latino families in Nashville.
Some uncertainty is inherent in any transition of power. One thing that’s for sure, however, is that Lee and his team will be inundated quickly with requests for meetings with stakeholders invested in Tennessee public education.
“On Nov. 7, regardless of the outcome, we will be reaching out to our governor-elect to begin initiating conversations and to begin establishing a relationship,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers organization.
While TEA’s political action committee endorsed Dean for governor, Brown says her group’s expertise transcends party affiliation, especially as the state seeks to address problems with testing and teacher evaluation programs, among other things.
“Teacher confidence in our state is at a low point,” she said. “We are an organization of practitioners, and we are in a unique place to connect state leadership with teachers everywhere.”
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said her team’s transition reports delve into everything from reading and school safety initiatives to shifting the state’s testing program to one or more new companies beginning next fall. The Haslam administration also is recommending continued increases for teacher pay.
“That’s just good stewardship of the resources we’ve already put into initiatives,” McQueen said of the reports. “We’re saying this is what’s worked and needs to move forward, and these are things where you’ll want to step back and see if that’s the right direction to move.”
She added: “We want a seamless transition.”
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