Two Republicans and two Democrats who are working to be Tennessee’s next governor tackled one of the state’s biggest challenges in a public forum Monday night at William Blount High School.
The gubernatorial candidates shared their thoughts on education at the community meeting titled “Making Education Tennessee’s Top Priority: The Roles of State Government, Local Governments, and all Tennessee Citizens.”
Almost 200 turned out for the event. Candidates participating were Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, former State House Majority Leader Kim McMillan and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp.
The event was sponsored by the Blount Education Initiative, a non-partisan, grassroots organization dedicated to promoting educational excellence.
The candidates shared their opinions on a variety of issues from setting higher standards for students, funding for schools and whether or not to combine the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Board of Regents systems.
Each shared their thoughts on the recently released report from the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education entitled “A Roadmap for Success: A Plan to Make Tennessee Number One in the Southeast Within Five Years.”
Ward Cammack, a Nashville businessman and Democrat said there is a flaw in measuring everything strictly by test results. “My problem with it is teaching to the test. I really believe it leads us in the wrong direction,” he said.
Kim McMillan, a former majority leader of the State House of Representatives and a Democrat, said the goal is possible. “What we have to do is set our standards high. I believe it is a goal we can achieve,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, a Chattanooga Republican, said part of the challenge is convincing Tennesseans that education is vital to their jobs and their economy. “I think it is realistic that in eight years we can be in the top 25. It has everything to do with whether or not we have jobs,” he said.
Bill Haslam, Knoxville mayor and a Republican, said Tennesseans have to remember they are competing with people all over the world. “If we put a great principal in every school and great teachers in every classroom, the rankings will follow.”
Regarding funding for fine arts, McMillan said the state must focus on fine arts in the classroom. “I think fine arts are extremely important to making high school graduates well rounded,” she said.
Wamp said he has always stressed the importance of fine arts and physical education in schools. “I grew up in a house with music. It makes us deeper but we have to be careful what we mandate,” he said.
Haslam said fine arts is essential. “Taking fine arts out of schools is not something we should think about,” he said.
Cammack defended fine arts in the schools, saying “we have to do everything we can to preserve it.”
The candidates were asked their thoughts on teacher compensation.
Wamp said the state is in a bind even with federal stimulus funds flowing into the treasury. “There is no more state money. We’re upside down, even with stimulus money. We ought to pay teachers well because standards at universities are going up,” he said.
Haslam said teachers haven’t had a pay raise in four or five years because of state budget constraints. “You want to make certain you are paying your teachers fairly,” he said. “I do think one place you look at is how you are competing. You have to make sure you are market competitive.”
Cammack said he believes in education. “Competitive forces are going to be very, very tough, and schools are making education a revenue source,” he said.
McMillan said education needs to be the Number One priority of the state. “The Number One thing about education is the teacher,” she said. “They are training the workers of tomorrow.”
When asked their thoughts on home schooling, the candidates shared their views.
Cammack said it is “all hands on deck” to help ensure children are educated. “I think in the next several years the standards are going to be so tough, if they want to take that on, more power to them,” he said.
McMillan said home school students should be expected to meet the same standards as students across the state. “It’s very important we meet that standard,” she said.
The congressman said if parents want to school their children at home, that ought to be encouraged. “I’m such a home education advocate; I’ll have at least one member of the state board of education from the home-school environment.”
Haslam said home schooling is working. “But the standards should not be different,” he said for home school students.
The candidates were asked their thoughts on combining the State Board of Regents system with 195,000 students and the University of Tennessee system with 45,000 students to solve any duplication of services. The candidates appeared to treat the question like it was a hot potato.
Wamp said this is a challenge the current governor could face in the next session. “Do I think we could improve higher education? Yes. Do I think we should streamline it to make it better? Yes.”
Haslam said agreed there is duplication. “We need to start off with the mission. What should their specific roles be? Define roles then decide governance.”
Cammack said not everyone goes to college right out of high school and some choose to return later. “People don’t live in a straight line. Only 22 percent go to college. I’d like to see more, but we have to go about things differently,” he said.
McMillan said roles need to be defined for the two institutions. “We have to think about the mission of the two systems,” she said.
Regarding how to fund education initiatives, Cammack suggested opening up community colleges to the high schools. “Bring what they do into the k-12 education arena. In Tennessee, we need look at every opportunity.” He also suggested finding other ways to pay for education such as partnership between schools and businesses.
Mayor Haslam said there will be cuts in the state budget when the next governor takes office, but K-12 should be preserved. “I think K-12 ought to be off the table,” he said.
Wamp suggested looking at programs that are working and following their example, especially successful school systems that are operating on lean budgets. “We’ve got to find out how to do more with less,” he said.
McMillan said there must be a sense of priority in budgeting. “When you make education a priority, you can find a way to make it work,” she said.
The candidates shared their thoughts on holding teachers/principles accountable.
Haslam said the state has been tracking student performance for 25 years. “We need it so we can intervene and let the principals and teachers have this data in form they can use,” he said.
Cammack said the state should be careful holding teachers accountable by using test scores. “We need to be careful about teaching to the test. The problem is you are getting students so on track of what the test is, not about where their interests are,” he said.
McMillan said there need to be evaluators who actually go in the classroom and see how the teachers are teaching. “We have to do everything in our power for them to have the tools they need to teach,” she said.
Wamp said the teachers he knows pour their hearts out to ensure students are educated. He pointed out the Oak Ridge and Maryville City School systems as examples of schools where teachers are held accountable and students excel. “These success models are what we’ve got to follow,” he said.
Regarding prayer in schools, Wamp said the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t going to stop students from praying. “I’ve always just encouraged it. We need to stand up for what we believe in,” he said.
Haslam said there’s nothing more important to him than his faith. “I think it’s really important we allow religion in school. It shouldn’t be restricted,” he said.
Cammack said if someone wants to pray they should. “I don’t think it’s something we should make into a campaign issue,” he said.
McMillan drew laughter with her response. “As long as there are tests in school, there will be prayer,” she said.
The former state lawmaker said what citizens should beware of is making prayer mandatory. “We have to respect different religions,” she said.
In closing statements, Wamp said as governor he would make it his number one priority to convince Tennesseans of the importance of a good education for every person. “This is important to our own economic wellbeing. It’s a commitment to our economic viability,” he said. “Education is from cradle to grave. I want to be your governor. Tennessee, by 2020, is going to be a better state and education is going to be a higher priority.”
McClellan said education is a priority closely related to job creation. “We have to find ways to create educational opportunities, and jobs will follow,” she said.
Haslam said one of major issues for attracting new jobs is having an educated workforce and that’s why reaching for higher, more rigorous educational standards is needed. “We need a governor who says the numbers are what they are,” he said.
Cammack said he got into this race because he feels strongly about the state of Tennessee. “We have opportunities in front of us. How are we going to educate for the new jobs? If we just adjust pay scales, that’s not enough,” he said. “The world is changing too fast, and I want to make changes to the educational system.”
Following the forum, the candidates shared their thoughts on the event.
Mayor Haslam said it was refreshing to have questions that were posed by the moderator and questions taken from audience because it kept all the candidates on their toes. The Knoxville mayor said the three main issues in the election are the budget, creating jobs and education. “They’re all related,” he said.
McMillan said, “I was very pleased and really excited when I saw so many people making education a top priority,” she said.
Wamp said education is the main essence of the campaign because it relates to all other issues.
Cammack said he was pleased to see “Republicans and Democrats come together,” he said. The Nashville businessman said he was disappointed and said the conversations did little to improve education in Tennessee. Cammack said what needs to happen is education needs to be “torn down” and completely revamped so that students can be prepared for the jobs of the future.
“If not, we’ll continue to get more of the same,” he said. “All we talked about is Band-aids.”
Unexpected visitor brings music to William Blount
John Rich of the Country music duo Big and Rich sat in the audience during the forum as a guest of Wamp. Afterward he entertained folks outside the auditorium before Wamp filed out with his family.
Rich said having a governor with experience as a Washington D.C. lawmaker isn’t a bad thing because Wamp would have the knowledge to deal with the federal mandates and other issues that flow from the federal level to the state level. “To me, Congressman Wamp is going to stand in that fray.”
Rich said Wamp is a man of his word. “Congressman Wamp means what he says and says what he means. It’s going to take a good old hillbilly with common sense to keep Tennessee in one piece over the next few years,” he said of Wamp.