Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (left) is being challenged in the Nov. 8 general election by Democratic nominee Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor critical of the Republican incumbent’s hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photos: Bill Lee From courtesy of State of Tennessee; Dr. Jason Martin courtesy of Dr. Jason Martin campaign.)

Gov. Bill Lee and his Democratic challenger, Dr. Jason Martin, agree that Tennessee students need timely and relevant vocational training opportunities, but the two candidates for governor don’t concur on much else when it comes to K-12 education.

In fact, the two men hold widely divergent positions on charter schools, book bans, the state’s new third-grade retention law, and most of the biggest education issues facing Tennessee for the next few years, according to their responses to Chalkbeat’s 2022 candidates survey.

Lee, a Williamson County businessman and farmer who was elected governor in his first run for public office, staunchly defends initiatives he’s championed since 2019 to give the state more control — at the expense of local officials — over classroom instruction, books, school choice, and education spending.

“Nothing is off the table when it comes to expanding opportunities for Tennessee families,” the Republican governor responded when asked if he wants to widen the state’s recently launched private school voucher program beyond Memphis and Nashville, where local officials opposed the policy.

Martin, a Nashville physician who has been critical of Lee’s hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Tennessee’s biggest educational challenges are rooted in inadequate school funding and wraparound services to support students both in and out of the classroom. Making his own first bid for public office, he consistently sides with policies that uphold local education control.

“Decisions that affect our schools, teachers, and students should be made by those closest to the community,” Martin said when asked about a new law allowing a state panel to overrule school board decisions and ban certain library books statewide.

Election Day is Nov. 8, with early voting from Oct. 19 to Nov. 3.

Below, you can read our questions and the candidates’ responses, which have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Chalkbeat: COVID-19 has caused the biggest disruption to education in modern history. What is the single most important way the governor can help stabilize and support Tennessee school communities moving forward?

Lee: In January 2021, we called a special legislative session to address learning loss. That action made Tennessee a national leader in early interventions for kids. With the help of partners in the General Assembly, we created summer learning camps and targeted interventions for literacy. Recent data — including state test scores showing that reading proficiency has returned to pre-pandemic levels in almost all grades — suggests Tennessee students are recovering well. We will build on those efforts.

Martin: Tennessee schools would not have been hit nearly as hard during the pandemic had our schools been properly funded before. Ranking 45th in the nation in per-pupil spending, we need a better way to fund our schools that takes into account the different economies across communities and resources needed for each district. We must reevaluate our state’s education funding formula to make sure teachers are paid a fair salary and schools have the resources to keep kids healthy, educated, and safe. Those include more social workers, guidance counselors, and after-school programs. We also must ensure that every household, rural or urban, has access to high-speed broadband so our students can learn in a 21st-century setting.

How can the state address learning lag, especially for student groups who already were behind, such as people of color, with disabilities, or from low-income families? Should Tennessee make its tutoring and summer learning programs permanent intervention tools? What else can the state do to help students catch up?

Lee: Closing the achievement gap has been a priority woven throughout our administration’s approach. It is a key reason why we have put so many resources into literacy and early intervention, and I anticipate those programs, like summer camps, are here to stay. It is also a major factor in why we pursued an overhaul of the state’s outdated approach to school funding and built a student-centered approach via the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement. This new education funding formula will give us more capacity to address the unique needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, and students with learning challenges like dyslexia.

A man in a business suit sits at a desk with a pen while he’s surrounded by eight men and one woman who are clapping.
Surrounded by GOP legislative leaders and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, Gov. Bill Lee signs Tennessee’s new education funding bill into law on May 2, 2022, at Franklin High School, where Lee graduated in 1977.

Martin: Education inequities are the result of years of ignoring marginalized and low-income communities, and I would prioritize funding their schools to match what well-funded communities have. Tennessee should utilize public and private partnerships to create year-round wraparound programs in schools, including support for student populations experiencing learning lag. Additional interventions such as permanent tutoring, after school-programs, and summer learning camps are important, but so is widening access to softer experiences such as internship and study programs. As a state, we need to try harder to relate classroom learning to the experiences of students where they live. As governor, I’ll sit down with educators to figure out how we can grow those resources and opportunities throughout our state.

As rates of pandemic-era depression and anxiety surge among children and young people, how can the state better support the mental health needs of its students? Would you propose investing more money in Tennessee’s new education funding formula base so that districts can hire more counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses?

Lee: Early in my administration, we pushed for an outside-the-box approach to fund student mental health resources, which resulted in the creation of the Tennessee’s Mental Health Trust Fund. We invested $250 million into that fund to expand students’ access to clinical services, suicide prevention, violence prevention, and other supports. More than 60% of kids who receive mental health care do so through their school, and we believe the trust fund will ensure those services are high-quality. We also have funded a behavioral health liaison for all 95 counties and have filled at least 79 of those positions, despite workforce challenges. As for nurses and other school supports, the TISA funding formula increases state funding for public schools by almost 20%, allowing local communities to make informed decisions about what is needed.

Martin: I would not suggest adding more money into the base of Tennessee’s new education funding formula, because I believe that the formula needs to be rewritten. I do support expanding Medicaid and insuring more children to make sure they get the health care they need, including for mental health. I also support funneling more money directly into schools so they can hire health care professionals. We need to invest in wraparound services to expand access to mental health counselors, nutrition programs, interventionists, and other programs that help to keep students on track.

Should the legislature revisit the new state law that puts up to 70% of third-graders at risk of being held back if they don’t test as proficient in reading by the end of this school year? Why or why not? Specifically, would you support scaling back the law so it applies only to students who score in the state’s bottom achievement category, which currently comprises about a fifth of third-graders? And should retention decisions take into account local input, in addition to the state test results?

Lee: If you really care about a child’s future, the last thing you should do is push them past the third grade if they can’t read. This law is about working with parents to do right by their students before it’s too late. While retention is an option, we are making sure parents fully understand their students’ reading progress and the tools that are available to them well before repeating third grade is on the table. Tennessee’s law also prioritizes strategic investments in proven practices to support reading, such as participating in an extended summer program and in high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring to help their kids catch up. There shouldn’t be any stigma around pausing to help children learn a skill that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

Martin: We should revisit the law and, this time, take into account what teachers, administrators, and groups who represent educators say. Having the state legislature pass a law that affects so many students without consulting those who know most about the issues is not just irresponsible, but detrimental to our children. If the consensus among our education experts, which includes teachers, is that we should scale back the law to apply only to students who score in the state’s bottom achievement category, then I would support that position. No one is better qualified to speak to a student’s proficiency than a teacher. That local input is necessary for a successful education policy.

As governor, how will you measure the success or failure of Tennessee’s new Education Savings Account Pilot Program? Would you consider expanding the program beyond Memphis and Nashville to provide private school vouchers statewide? And should the Tennessee Constitution be amended to clarify that taxpayer-funded subsidies to private schools are constitutional?

Lee: After a definitive Tennessee Supreme Court ruling, three years of waiting, and just weeks before this new school year, parents in Memphis and Nashville finally got the opportunity to apply for education savings accounts. The response was tremendous and our Department of Education has worked overtime to create a high-quality, transparent process for families who want to participate. We’ve received heartfelt letters from students wanting this opportunity. One young man signed his application letter “please consider me” and noted how much it would mean to be in a more supportive learning environment after his father passed away. Critics who have fought this program tooth and nail should sit down face to face with these families to see what it looks like to deny opportunity. Hundreds of families are already enrolled, but nothing is off the table when it comes to expanding opportunities for Tennessee families. It’s all about parents deciding what’s best for their children.

Martin: The Tennessee Constitution should not be amended, because the voucher program is unconstitutional and has been found so by several courts. As governor, I would not consider expanding the program. In fact, I would work with both sides of the aisle to repeal the unconstitutional voucher program. Public taxpayer dollars should be spent on public schools.

Recent polling by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education found that Tennessee voters believe — by a 2-to-1 margin — that decisions on whether to approve taxpayer-funded, independently run charter schools should reside with local school boards, and not with state government. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Lee: Charter schools are public schools. The process lives first at the local level, and the charter commission handles appeals. Tennesseans have both a transparent look into the approval process and an opportunity to provide input. It is a healthy mix of citizen, local, and state collaboration when it comes to determining what new options are available to parents.

Martin: Yes, I absolutely agree. Locally elected school boards should decide whether or not to approve a charter to run a school independent of the local district. When money collected locally is what is being spent on some of these charter schools, it is best left to those in the community to decide where that money goes.

Dr. Jason Martin speaks to protesters in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on Sept. 14 before the state’s public hearing on an American Classical Education charter school application rejected by Rutherford County Schools. (Photo: Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat)

What should Tennessee do in the next two years to reverse trends that show more teachers leaving the profession and too few entering it? How can policymakers address the workload and lack of respect that many teachers cite as their reasons for exiting?

Lee: Teaching isn’t just a job; it’s a calling, and we’ve increased teacher pay each year we’ve been in office. We have also closed loopholes that prevented those hard-earned raises from making it to teachers’ paychecks. Tennessee is a nationally recognized pioneer in growing the teacher workforce. Our education department worked with local districts and our Department of Labor and Workforce Development to build the Grow Your Own program so Tennesseans can train to become a teacher for free while earning a wage. It is the first-ever federally recognized teaching apprenticeship program and is already attracting new teachers to the classroom. We’re making progress. But I believe we must also address why the bureaucratic side of school systems is growing so heavily, yet the teacher workforce has been shrinking. 

Martin: To begin with, I wouldn’t ever disparage teachers by sitting by and accepting criticism of their profession or where they went to school. First and foremost, we must increase teacher pay. Second, if the state invests in wraparound services and fully funds our schools, it will lessen the workload of teachers. Third, we need to incentivize aspiring teachers by reducing the costs of going to school to become a teacher and to obtain their certifications. New teachers should not be saddled with insurmountable debt to serve in this noble profession. Finally, improving the profession is an ongoing effort. As governor, I would hold regular meetings with teachers to develop strategies and measure progress.

With book bans making headlines, should decisions about removing books from classrooms and school libraries be made by locally elected school board members, based on local community standards — or by a state-appointed panel such as the Tennessee Textbook Commission, as authorized under a 2022 law? And why?

Lee: Our priority is to ensure parents know exactly what their children are learning at school — and that the learning materials are age-appropriate. We’ve added transparency so parents can see what materials are in classrooms and libraries. We’ve also given parents recourse to address divisive politicking in the classroom that has nothing to do with educating our kids well in reading, math, and the basics.

Martin: Decisions that affect our schools, teachers, and students should be made by those closest to the community. That includes decisions about curriculum and what books that students should be allowed to read. The Tennessee Textbook Commission has shown itself to be overbearing and unwilling to listen to what parents, teachers, and administrators have asked for in their children’s education.

Will you commit to working to move Tennessee out of the bottom fifth of national rankings in per-pupil funding? And as Tennessee switches to a new education funding formula next year, how will you ensure the state is keeping up with the true costs of educating students?

Lee: My administration has increased funding for education every single year I’ve been in office. We’ve invested a historic $1 billion of new funding directly into our students. That’s an almost 20% increase in state funding, the largest in Tennessee history. A key function of TISA is to fund our students well and pay our teachers competitively.

Martin: Yes, I am committed to moving Tennessee out of the bottom national rankings in per-pupil funding. I do not believe Bill Lee’s TISA will do that, nor do I believe that it will keep up with the true costs of educating students. In fact, I believe that TISA will actually burden many of our school districts with new costs. We cannot identify a solution and expect it to fix the problem forever. So we should routinely revisit and reevaluate our state’s education funding formula. If we don’t, we won’t be able to keep up with education advancements and their costs, including new technology, teaching methods, and curricula.

Anything else you’d like to say about your priorities for K-12 education?

Lee: I’ve been a passionate advocate for putting career and technical education back in Tennessee classrooms. This has been a priority — not only because of my longtime work with plumbers, pipefitters, and welders, but also because of teachers like Dan Smith. A former Agriculture Teacher of the Year, Dan taught at Dyer County High School and is an inspiration behind one of my most important initiatives: the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education, to enhance career and technical education. Other things we’ve accomplished include Reading 360, a nationally recognized literacy initiative. We’ve expanded family engagement through Ready4K, giving parents easy-to-use activities that promote early learning with their children. And the state has invested $500 million to eliminate structural barriers between high school, workforce, and postsecondary systems. Every high school and middle school in the state will benefit.

Martin: Many Tennesseans depend on trade and vocational schools, training programs, apprenticeships, and two- and four-year colleges and universities to achieve their goals. This requires increased incentives while undergoing K-12 education for trade programs, certifications, future nurses and healthcare workers, and training for a more technologically competitive workforce. In supporting more local control of curricula, it is my hope that local administrators and teachers will provide the right instruction for all students, whether they choose to attend college or a trade school, or to pursue another path after graduating from high school.

Tell us about the kinds of schools you went to, what school was like for you, and how that influences your education policy today.

Lee: I am a proud alum of Fairview Elementary, Franklin Junior High School, and Franklin High School. It was especially meaningful to return to my alma mater this spring to sign our state’s new funding formula into law. I studied mechanical engineering at Auburn University, and that training really shaped my perspective on how we can methodically solve big problems. As an engineer, I’ve worked on massive, complex jobs where you used both blueprints and shop drawings. While a blueprint gives direction, it’s the shop drawings that dictate the day by day. The shop drawings capture every little detail that brings the vision to life. Our blueprint for education in Tennessee says kids should be prepared for life beyond the classroom. Our shop drawings look like putting parents back in the classroom and reinforcing that parents are the authority on their children. This looks like teaching our kids informed patriotism and becoming a top five state for civics education.

Martin: I attended public schools in lower Alabama, including a magnet high school. My schools were diverse across income levels and racial backgrounds. We had lifelong teachers who were committed to their classrooms. High school is where my activism for public education began. I founded a group called Students for Education, which advocated for public school funding and did coalition building to pass a property tax to increase funding for our district. Learning about the formula that funded my own public schools while attending them is a lesson that has stayed with me. And in my community, I have continued to fight for adequate school funding.

When it came time to choose schools for your own children, did you choose public schools? Private schools? Charters? Home school? And why?

Lee: I have four children, and we made decisions about their education based on each of their unique needs. That meant a mix of public school, private school, and home school for my children. I also became involved with charter schools while mentoring Adam, a young man who was growing up in the inner city and needed a different environment to succeed. When we keep our focus on students, we see the value in each offering, whether public, private, or home school.

Martin: Working in the medical field, my wife and I began our careers in our 30s. We were often on the move because my focus was on serving communities needing healthcare attention the most. So that our daughters didn’t have to change schools frequently, we chose an independent school that provided them with stability in their education, regardless of zoning or ZIP code, and that met their individual needs. It is a school that values economic, racial, and religious diversity and that reflects the values in our home.

(For more information about voting, visit GoVoteTN.gov or call the Tennessee Division of Elections toll-free at 1-877-850-4959.)

(Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected].)