Election 2018

Six things we heard during Tennessee’s first gubernatorial forum on education

PHOTO: Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean
From left: Republican Beth Harwell, Democrat Craig Fitzhugh. Democrat Karl Dean, Republican Bill Lee, and Republican Randy Boyd participate in a Jan. 23 gubernatorial forum on education at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Tennessee voters got their first good look at most candidates for governor during an education forum televised statewide Tuesday evening.

While few sharp differences emerged during the hour-long discussion, the exception was the issue of offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, which split along party lines. Meanwhile, a question about whether the candidates sent their children to public schools provided a glimpse at their personal family choices.

Here are six things we heard during the event at Nashville’s Belmont University:

The teaching profession needs to be supported and rewarded.

Every candidate said they want to boost pay for Tennessee teachers on the heels of two years of increased allocations under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, offered the most direct pledge, calling higher salaries his “No. 1 priority,” while House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, gave a more qualified pledge. “We have now given two back-to-back 4 percent pay increases to our teachers,” Harwell said. “Would I like to do more? Of course. And when the budget allows for that, I will.” On a related note, most candidates said it’s also time to revisit the state’s formula for funding K-12 education.

Credibility in TNReady needs to be restored.

Not every candidate got to answer every question, but those asked about the state’s problem-plagued standardized test spoke of the need to make improvements, not to dump it. “When the scoreboard breaks, you don’t just stop keeping score. You fix the scoreboard,” said Randy Boyd, a Republican businessman from Knoxville. Candidates also spoke of the importance of having an effective measuring stick to hold teachers accountable. “Teachers do not mind accountability; what they want is credibility in that accountability system and they want it to be useful,” Harwell said. “… We have come too far as a state to ever turn back in our accountability system.”

There was consensus that high-quality pre-kindergarten programs are a good investment.

More than two years after a Vanderbilt University study highlighted problems with Tennessee’s public pre-K programs for disadvantaged children, all of the candidates agreed that the focus now should be on lifting the quality of early childhood education, not abandoning it. “Not all pre-K is the same,” said Boyd. “We need to find programs that work well and duplicate those.” Meanwhile, Dean and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, said public pre-K should be expanded.

But there was disagreement over whether to provide in-state tuition for students who are undocumented immigrants.

Republicans said they would not sign legislation that would provide so-called “Dreamers” with the tuition break to attend the state’s higher education institutions, while Democrats said they would. “I’m the only person on this panel who has voted to do that, and I will vote to do that again,” Fitzhugh said of unsuccessful bills in Tennessee’s legislature during recent years. “It is cruel that we do not let these children that have lived in Tennessee all their life have in-state tuition,” he added. Republicans emphasized the letter of the law. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that we would offer something in college tuition to an immigrant that was here illegally that we wouldn’t offer to an American citizen from Georgia,” said Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County.

Education is ultimately about jobs.

PHOTO: George Walker IV/The Tennessean

All of the candidates called for investments in career and technical education that could lead to certifications and jobs. Several highlighted the importance of dual enrollment programs that allow students to earn college-level credits while still in high school. They also discussed the challenge of equipping students to finish college in a state where only one in five high school juniors meet all benchmarks for college readiness. “The key is to seek improvement in K-12,” said Dean. “If students go into college prepared, … they’re much more likely to succeed.”

The candidates’ personal experiences with public education are mixed.

Since funding and overseeing public education is one of the biggest jobs of state government, the forum’s moderators said it was fair game to ask the candidates about their own family decisions on attending public schools. Dean and Harwell said they went to public schools but sent their children to private schools. Boyd said he went to public school and opted for public and private schools for his two sons. Lee said his children have experienced a mix of homeschooling and public and private education. Fitzhugh was the only candidate who said that he and all of his children are products of public schools, and that his grandchildren attend public schools as well.

Five of seven major candidates participated in the forum sponsored by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, Belmont University, USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. Absent were U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican who said she had a scheduling conflict, and Mae Beavers, a Republican and former state senator from Mt. Juliet, who bowed out after her mother died over the weekend.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

Emergency fix

Mold-infested Detroit school will be closed for the rest of the year, school board meeting ends in chaos

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy will be closed for the rest of the year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

A water-damaged, mold-infested elementary school building in northwest Detroit will be closed for the rest of the school year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

District superintendent Nikolai Vitti notified the school board about plans for the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy during a board meeting Tuesday night that became so raucous, the board called a recess for nearly an hour before voting to end the meeting without addressing most of the items on its agenda.

The meeting was ended after security guards attempted to remove a loud protester from the meeting, prompting objections from her supporters.

Vitti told the board that the 500 students at Palmer Park will be relocated to two nearby schools.

“Starting on Monday,” Vitti said, Palmer Park classes will resume “in other buildings where we have space.”

Specifically, he said, elementary school students will likely go to the now-closed former Catherine Ferguson building and middle school students will move into extra classroom space at Bethune Elementary-Middle School. Bus transportation will be provided, he said.

The district is checking to see if this week’s five-day closure will require the district to add extra hours to comply with state class time requirements.

The potentially dangerous health conditions in the school, which teachers say caused some educators to become ill, were among several matters that had a large group of protesters angry with Vitti and board.

Earlier, protesters led by activist Helen Moore had loudly urged the board as it met at Mumford High School to discuss Mayor Mike Duggan’s plans, announced during last week’s State of the City address, to create collaborations between district and charter schools to grade Detroit schools and to work together on student transportation.

The activists warned that the mayor was trying to usurp the authority of the elected board.

“That’s how they take over,” Moore shouted.

The crowd also shouted loudly as Vitti discussed the district’s response to the Palmer Park situation, suggesting the district had put children’s health in harm’s way at buildings throughout the district.

Vitti acknowledged that the condition of district buildings is poor.

“I still am horrified by the overall condition of our buildings, specifically at certain locations,” Vitti said. “But I will continue to say that if you look at the day-to-day operations and use of these buildings, children are safe.”

When the audience yelled “nooo,” Vitti defended himself.

“I have nothing … to offer but integrity. My name is attached to this work,” Vitti said, noting that he has four children enrolled in the district. “If there is a child that is in harm’s way … then I will act immediately.”

The district is currently conducting a nearly $1 million study on the conditions of its buildings before making major investments in renovations.

But that timeline isn’t fast enough for one school board member.

“The building assessment won’t be ready until it’s almost time to return to school for the 18-19 school year,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. He blasted the Palmer Park situation as a “public relations nightmare.”

“If we don’t put in some damage control and get ahead of this, people will have a poor perception of the district, not only at Palmer Park but in its entirety,” he said.

media blitz

Making the rounds on TV, Betsy DeVos says she hasn’t visited struggling schools and draws sharp criticism

DeVos on the Today Show

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has visited all kinds of schools since she took office last year: district-run, charter, private, religious — even a school located in a zoo.

But one kind of school has been left out, she said Sunday on 60 Minutes: schools that are struggling.

It was a curious admission, since DeVos has built her policy agenda on the argument that vast swaths of American schools are so low-performing that their students should be given the choice to leave. That argument, DeVos conceded, is not based on any firsthand experiences.

Host Lesley Stahl pushed DeVos on the schools she’s skipped. Here’s their exchange:

Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

Stahl: Maybe you should.

DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

Her comments attracted criticism from her frequent foes, like American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who tweeted:

Even some who are more sympathetic to school choice initiatives said the interview did not go well.

The exchange occupied just a few seconds of the nearly 30 minutes that DeVos spent on television Sunday and Monday, including interviews on Fox and Friends and the Today Show. The appearances followed several school-safety proposals from the White House Sunday, including paying for firearms training for some teachers.

DeVos sidestepped questions about raising the age for gun purchases. “We have to get much broader than just talking about guns, and a gun issue where camps go into their corners,” she said. “We have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.”

She also endorsed local efforts to decide whether to increase weapons screening at schools. Asked on Fox and Friends about making schools more like airports, with metal detectors and ID checks, DeVos responded, “You know, some schools actually do that today. Perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate.”

DeVos also said on 60 Minutes that she would look into removing guidance from the Obama administration that was designed to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. Education Week reported, based on comments from an unnamed administration official, that the the guidance would likely land on the DeVos task force’s agenda.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that the Obama-era guidance may have contributed to Florida shooting by preventing the shooter from being referred to the police. (In fact, the 2013 Broward County program designed to reduce referrals to police for minor offenses predated the 2014 federal guidance.)

Details of the commission were not immediately available. Education Week also reported that “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” “rating systems for video games,” and “the effects of press coverage of mass shootings” are likely to be discussed.

“The Secretary will unveil a robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email.