Tennessee election results: Governor Bill Lee wins second term on education
Governor Bill Lee won a second term in Tuesday’s election, in part on his campaign promise to parents and teachers in Tennessee to “get the most out of the next four years” on education. But he offered few details on exactly what that might mean.
The Associated Press reported that election results showed the Republican governor easily defeated Dr. Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor and Democratic Party nominee, whom he declined to debate. The ruby red state has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2006.
Lee’s landslide victory prompts the governor to push for a mandate for whatever he offers through 2026, or back any ambitions he might have for national office.
The governor was due to deliver a victory speech later Tuesday evening.
Lee was short on details about his second term education program. Instead, he focused on staying the course on his first-quarter achievements, including emphasizing parental rights, rewriting Tennessee’s 30-year-old education funding formula. , by widening the access of colleges and high schools to vocational and technical training and by anchoring the teaching of reading in phonetics. .
Lee’s latest 30-second campaign ad — part of a $3.2 million campaign spending blitz in October — also touted safer classrooms and ended with this promise: “Parents and teachers, you have my word that we will make the most of the next four years.”
Campaign spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the announcement signaled “Lee’s intention to continue to make education a top priority.”
Asked on the eve of Election Day for details on his education priorities for his second term, Lee said he again wants to invest more money in teacher compensation and further expand teacher choices. education through charter schools and private vouchers. It also wishes to continue to give priority to vocational, technical and agricultural education.
“These are all things we have implemented over the past four years, but now we need to make sure they grow, are invested in and there is meaningful improvement across the board” , the governor told reporters during his final campaign stop in Franklin, south of Nashville.
But Democrats — who continue to understand that Lee pushed through private voucher legislation with a controversial and very thin vote during his first year in office — interpret the governor’s vague TV promise on education as a disturbing threat.
They expect Lee and another GOP legislative supermajority to try to expand his college savings account program to shift more taxpayer money from public schools to private schools. Currently, the program is limited to Memphis and Nashville.
Democrats also expect more proposals to censor books and teaching in public schools.
In 2021, Tennessee became one of the first states to enact legislation, which Lee signed, to restrict K-12 classroom discussions about the legacy of slavery, racism, and privilege. whites.
This year, Lee pushed through a law requiring examination of school library and classroom collections. He signed a second measure that authorizes the state textbook commission to ban disputed materials statewide if its appointed members deem them “inappropriate” for the age and maturity level of students.
Regarding the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol, Lee said students should learn that the deadly 2021 insurgency was a day of “lawlessness” by individual attackers. He did not refer to the larger plot, still under federal investigation, to disrupt the transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.
“Republicans have already begun to systematically eradicate history from textbooks and ban teachings related to race, gender identity and sexuality,” said Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat who chairs. his party’s caucus. “Four more years under this leadership will only lead to more micromanagement of school programs and tougher fines and penalties for our already overworked and underpaid educators.”
Lee won big despite a major misstep
A businessman and farmer from wealthy Williamson County, near Nashville, Lee surprised both political parties four years ago when he survived a deadly primary race and won his first bid for public office to become the 50th Governor of Tennessee.
Campaigning for more education choices for families and career training options for students, he made education a top priority and used the state’s GOP muscle to shift much of his program.
But Lee suffered a humiliating blow this year after inviting the president of conservative Hillsdale College of Michigan to bring up to 100 charter schools to Tennessee, only to have the Hillsdale charter group withdraw its first three applications after a panel appointed by Lee found that the proposals fell short.
Lee was also stung by public outrage – and criticized by many members of his own political party – after leaked video showed him sitting in silence at a private reception in June as the president of Hillsdale, Larry Arnn, poked fun at teachers, their training programs and diversity officers. . The governor refused to disavow Arnn’s remarks or disaffiliate with Hillsdale. Instead, he blamed “left-wing activism in public education” as hurting the “real work of our teachers.”
At the time, Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally called Arnn’s comments “ill-conceived, unfortunate and untrue.” This week, the legislature’s GOP leader said Lee’s accomplishments made up for all of the governor’s missteps regarding Arnn’s comments.
“I think voters have looked at his entire case,” said McNally, who is from Oak Ridge. “He was dealt with the worst hand of any governor I can remember – with COVID, floods, tornadoes and protests. I think he did very well. »
But Martin, an intensive care physician, said it was the governor’s hands-off approach to the COVID pandemic that prompted him to run against Lee. The Democratic candidate also criticized the school voucher, charter and censorship policies supported by Lee for giving the state ultimate control of such decisions at the expense of local elected officials.
Other critics said it was hypocritical for Lee’s campaign ads to claim children, families and mothers were his ‘top priority,’ when he did not support Medicaid expansion. to accept billions of dollars in federal health benefits for the working poor.
The governor has also helped grow the state’s rainy day fund to record highs while his Department of Children’s Services – the state agency responsible for caring for abused, neglected and Foster Care – is severely understaffed and running out of beds for children in custody.
Next Steps: Shaping Another Mandate
Fresh off his Election Day victory, Lee will kick off budget hearings on Wednesday to prepare his state spending proposal for 2023-24, which he will present to the Tennessee General Assembly several weeks after lawmakers are convened. January 10.
Budget talks on K-12 education with Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn are number two on the four-day schedule.
Months before his re-election, Lee pledged to invest an additional $1 billion in students and schools over the next fiscal year, when federal pandemic relief funding is expected to run out and the new formula for State funding will come into effect.
But while Lee was seen as a strong favorite for a second term, Schwinn’s future was less certain.
Former Texas academic leader spearheaded key governor initiatives, including strategies to improve literacy and help students recover from pandemic learning loss, as well as expanding teacher training programs and implementing a new education funding formula that allows money to follow the student. , in addition to setting aside more money for students with higher needs.
But staff turnover at the state Department of Education was high under Schwinn’s leadership. And early on, she frustrated lawmakers for rolling out initiatives and taking administrative shortcuts without sufficient legislative input, scrutiny or approval, even as she led Tennessee through the pandemic, considered America’s biggest upheaval. modern history education.
When asked last month if she planned to continue her role for a second term, Schwinn said she and Lee “have had these conversations.”
“I’m planning on being here, and we’re going full steam ahead,” she told Chalkbeat.
She cited the state’s strategic plans on literacy, student acceleration, innovative school models, do-it-yourself teacher training programs, and the state’s new funding formula.
“We’re really proud of these big bills that have been passed and the interventions and the work,” she said. “Now we have to overtake and stay the course.”
Marta W. Aldrich is senior correspondent and covers the Chalkbeat Tennessee State House. Contact her at [email protected]