Historic change is happening in the state capitol. A new governor and more than a quarter of the General Assembly will take their places in January as newly elected officials. Along with new lawmakers are new leaders in the state Senate and House of Representatives.
There is hope that the goals and needs of educators, students and parents across Tennessee will be addressed by the incoming General Assembly and administration.
Governor-elect Bill Lee won a convincing general election after a bruising Republican primary. While education did not play a central role in either contest, Lee did outline priorities and perspectives on education.
As the owner of one of the largest heating and plumbing contractors in the state, Lee did emphasize the importance of vocational education. He highlighted this focus in one of his campaign commercials where Lee welded a pipe.
“For way too long, we’ve told people you got to go to college—don’t go into the trades,” Lee said, noting his company trained more than 1,000 skill tradesmen in 10 years. “I don’t just talk about vocational training. We’ve actually done it, and we’ve helped a lot of men and women—families—make really good lives for themselves. We’re going do that all over Tennessee,” he said.
Lee has floated a proposal that every Tennessee student take at least one vocational course, whether it be computer coding or carpentry. It is a marked change from the college-bound emphasis of the Haslam administration.
“There is real opportunity for the incoming governor to connect with teachers about meeting his goals,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “He has called into question the current number one educational goal of the state—test scores. Vocational courses don’t fit into the test-score goals. I think Lee understands that as long as high-stakes decisions are tied to test scores, his CTE goals will not be met.”
Brown notes that project-based learning, the way many Tennessee teachers taught prior to the drive on test scores, fits into the goal of real-world skills that vocational classes provide.
“He has said how much he respects teachers and understands our profession. It’s our hope that he will rely on us to help meet his idea of what Tennessee education should be. We see a lot of common ground from his statements and hope to work with him in a constructive manner,” Brown said.
Lee has been a supporter of private school vouchers. He has reiterated his stance on the issue in recent interviews, but has not committed his administration to having its own privatization bills.
“We have an open mind on the governor-elect’s education priorities. We know private school vouchers are damaging public schools in other states. Fortunately, TEA has been able to prevent them in Tennessee for several years. Regardless of the incoming administration, there will be privatization fights like we have experienced in years past,” Brown said.
The General Assembly is also undergoing a tremendous change in officeholders and leadership.
In November, the super-majority Republican House caucus overwhelmingly nominated Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) to be the next speaker.
Casada was instrumental in passing a final hold-harmless bill on the last day of the 2018 legislative session. As majority leader, he made the motion to recall the state budget from the clerk’s desk and hold it in the House until the administration and Senate passed the House bill to protect students and teachers from state testing failures.
“Glen Casada showed he was willing to advocate for teachers and parents across the state, and took decisive action to make sure they are treated fairly and respectfully during state testing failures,” said TEA Chief Lobbyist Jim Wrye. “Leader Casada can be a great advocate for education, and we look forward to working with him and the entire House leadership team to move Tennessee public education forward.”
In the Senate, Republicans re-nominated Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) as the speaker of the body, and as extension the state Lieutenant Governor. McNally began his tenure as head of the Senate in 2017. His leadership has been key to having the upper chamber pass more pro-public education legislation and halt anti-teacher measures.
Senate Republicans elected Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Brentwood) as Majority Leader and Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) as Republican Caucus Chair to round out the new leadership team. Johnson and Yager have good relationships with TEA and its membership. Both leaders also have solid voting records on key education issues.
“Johnson and Yager have had open doors to the concerns of TEA members, and we believe the practice will continue in their new leadership roles,” Wrye said.
House Republicans elected Rep. William Lamberth (R-Portland) as Majority Leader, Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) as Republican Caucus Leader, and Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) as Caucus Whip.
House Democrats elected their first African American top officer, Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) as Minority Leader and retained Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) as Democratic Caucus Leader.
Senate Democrats elected Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) as Minority Leader and Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) as Democratic Caucus Chair.