Debate Preview: GOP Gubernatorial Candidates Answer Five Questions on Education

The Gubernatorial Candidate Educational Forum will be held at Belmont University and broadcast on NewsChannel 5 from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm tonight, Tuesday, January 22.

The Tennessee Star will be there, along with six of the seven leading gubernatorial candidates from the Republican and Democratic parties. Republicans in attendance will be Randy Boyd, Bill Lee, Mae Beavers, and Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell (R- Nashville). Democrats in attendance will be Karl Dean and State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley). Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06) will be the only gubernatorial candidate not in attendance. Black is in Washington, where Congress is currently in session.

Earlier this month, the Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) asked all seven candidates five questions about education. PET has graciously shared their responses with The Tennessee Star.

As a preview of tonight’s debate, we present the responses of the five leading GOP Gubernatorial candidates to those questions.


Thank you for taking the time to share with our educators today. On behalf of our members, I would like to say we are grateful you are offering yourself for Governor. Please share with educators a little about who you are, and why you are running for Governor.

BEAVERS: I am Mae Beavers, candidate for Governor. I am a wife, a mother and a grandmother to five. I am a graduate of Trevecca Nazarene University. I served on the Wilson County Commission, and in the State House and the State Senate. I just resigned from the Senate after 15 years in order to run for Governor because of the problems I saw that needed to be solved.

BLACK: My name is Diane Black. I am a registered nurse and former educator. I currently serve the people of Tennessee’s sixth congressional district as their Congressman.

Who I am can be traced back to how I was raised. I grew up in Maryland, and spent the first years of my life in public housing. My parents came of age during the Depression and didn’t have more than a ninth-grade education.

I never thought I would have the opportunity to go to college, but a guidance counselor helped me to get a scholarship to go to nursing school. If it were not for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

From my counselor, I learned to have high standards and high expectations. From my parents, I learned the value of work hard, to never quit, and to stick close to the most important thing – my values.

I am running for Governor because I want our state to be the best it can be from education to healthcare to job creation. I want every child to know they can reach their full potential here.

BOYD: First and foremost, I am a proud husband, father and 7th generation Tennessean. A Republican and principled conservative. And a business owner.

I am running for Governor to expand opportunities for all Tennesseans. As Governor, if elected, I will have three clear goals:
• Complete the Drive to 55 to ensure students and Tennesseans of all ages are prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
• Be #1 in the Southeast for High Quality Jobs.
• Have zero distressed counties in Tennessee by 2025.

No matter the audience, when asked why I’m running for Governor I always come back to education. For us to continue to move forward in education we must have teachers at the table. Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other in-school factor. We cannot expect to make the progress for ALL students without your ideas, input and leadership.

Working to improve education is not a new issue for me. Some of my most valuable insights into the challenges we face when working to improve education came when helping to form a public-private partnership to make one of our Knoxville local schools the heart of the community and ensuring that the school became the nexus for providing each child a great education and the social, emotional, wellness and mental health support to learn and flourish. Without great teachers we could not have made that school a reality.

My experience helping to launch higher education opportunity programs like knoxAchieves, the Drive to 55 and Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect has given me unique insight into the importance of getting all students prepared for the next level of opportunities. For me, education is not just about helping students get a great education, but it is about creating opportunities for better jobs and better lives for Tennesseans. By establishing big and bold goals we can continue to build on progress we have made and go even higher, leading to Tennessee becoming the Smartest State in the South.

HARWELL: I currently serve as Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, a position to which my colleagues elected me, and it is a great honor. I’m originally from a small town in rural Pennsylvania, but I came here for college and never left. I truly fell in love with this state. I have the experience to continue the successes we have seen in this state. During my tenure as Speaker of the House, we have enacted policies that are resulting in a more prosperous Tennessee. We currently have the lowest unemployment rate in our state’s history, we’ve cut taxes, we’ve shrunk the size of government and made it more efficient, and we have made strides in education. I can continue and build on this success as governor

LEE: I’m a Christian, a farmer, and a businessman. I’ve lived my whole life on the same farm, just west of Nashville, where we raise Hereford cattle for customers across Tennessee. I’m also a licensed plumber, and have led a business, Lee Company, which we have grown from a local enterprise to a regional company with 1,200 employees, and hundreds of skilled tradesmen. To get where we are today, we set a vision to create a workplace where our employees can thrive, finding innovative and original solutions to serve every customer, and to honor God by serving people with respect, integrity and compassion.

Aside from my business, I’ve developed a passion for non-profit work and service, becoming involved in many great organizations with missions ranging from international aid to a men’s prison ministry, among others. I also served on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing Reform and Recidivism.

I have a deep passion for education, which grew during my time as President of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee. I became involved in YCAP (a YMCA community action initiative for at-risk youth) which gave me the opportunity to become a mentor for a young man who truly changed my life as we navigated together the difficulties and dangers of growing up under hard circumstances in the inner city. One of the challenges he overcame was escaping a dangerous school environment, an experience that deeply influenced my passion for education, and demonstrated the huge impact a public education can have on a young person’s life.

As I started to consider running for Governor, I asked whether our state could be served by a business leader, with a heart for public service, and who comes from outside the political status quo. And after much prayer and reflection, I believe that’s exactly what our state needs at this time.



We made quite a few changes in public education in Tennessee the last decade – some necessary, some debatable. What are we doing right?

BEAVERS: There have been efforts made over the last few years to reform education.  I have heard from parents and teachers about the reforms and the negative impact it is having on our teachers and our students.  We are losing great teachers who want to use their talent to teach but because they are having to teach to a test cannot enjoy teaching as they once did.  Standardized testing, which is costing $110 million a year, has had many problems over the last few years.  I believe it should be left to the local school district to determine what test they want to use, standardized or the ACT or SAT we have used for so many years.

BLACK: As the fastest improving state in the nation since 2011, Tennessee has been making great strides in getting public education right. Closing achievement gaps and improving college readiness among students is no easy feat. I applaud the hard work and dedication of the high-quality educators who made it possible.

Tennessee has set high expectations for teachers and teachers have met the challenge. Increased accountability has been a positive for teachers and students. The current wave of education reform has produced real, measurable results that have benefitted our state.

BOYD: As the fastest-improving state in the nation, Tennessee is a national leader.   I believe we are on the right track and have positive momentum, but we need to keep our eyes on the prize. Some of the basic foundations center around the following:

  • The higher academic standards we set for students, which Tennessee educators helped craft;
  • The feedback and professional development systems we created, which Tennessee teachers have provided direct feedback of how this is helping them improve classroom instruction.
  • That we are listening and engaging teachers in meaningful ways and we need to do more of it. We need to make sure that all the assessment and evaluation and accountabilities are centered around the very practical need to make sure the teacher-student-parent relationship is the most productive partnership that maximizes every child’s God-given potential and talents.

I believe another thing we’re doing right is simply setting goals. As my private sector experience has taught me, setting direct, achievable goals gives us a common direction and purpose.  We’ve set a couple of goals as a state toward which we’ve made progress but must continue pursuing, namely:

  • Continuing to be the fastest growing state in student achievement so we move into the top 25 in every subject;
  • Investing in teacher salaries – one of several things we need to do to make Tennessee the best place to be a teacher.
  • Finishing the Drive to 55 so students and adults are prepared for tomorrow’s jobs.

While it can certainly go too far, having a consistent, stable assessment is crucial for tracking student progress. I support the work that has been done to refine and improve on the assessment process and, as Governor, I will work to continue to improve that process. Teacher feedback will be a critical part of that improvement as we want to continue keeping track of student progress, while making sure that any testing we do is about quality and relevancy, not simply adding bureaucracy. Assessments are an important tool for everyone to use — students, parents, and the teacher — and I will work to ensure it’s used in the proper way to truly help our students grow.

HARWELL: The accountability measures we have put in place are working. We have high standards in place. We have asked a lot of our teachers, but they have risen to the challenge. Scores are improving, and we continue to do better in national rankings.

LEE: At Lee Company, I’ve learned that my role as a CEO is not to micromanage my employees, but to create the conditions for them to thrive. In the last few years, two critical pieces of legislation have helped move Tennessee forward towards creating an environment where our teachers can each achieve the respect and individual consideration they deserve.

Updates to our state’s collective bargaining rules brought new and diverse voices to the table. In doing so, we acknowledged, as a state, that our teachers represent a range of unique and valuable viewpoints and that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Teachers deserve choices in who represents them, and I believe we took a step in the right direction by giving teachers this choice.

More recently, our state has taken steps to ensure that we work to improve the culture around education. Personal safety, bullying, and working conditions are concerns that deserve primary consideration, and the passage of the Teacher’s Bill of Rights has helped launch a conversation that I believe is critical to helping our teachers thrive.

If elected to serve as your governor, I would work hard to build on these efforts and others to ensure our educators are treated as individuals, with the respect, reward, and full support of our state.


In your opinion, what are the top 3 challenges still facing education in Tennessee?

BEAVERS: (A) We need to teach children to read by the 3rd grade before they go on to the next grade.  We need to teach phonetic based reading again.  We also need full immersion in the English language before a child is put in a classroom.

(B) Our teachers should not have to teach to a test but should be able to use the talent they have to teach our children.

(C) We need more transparency in education, whether it be the mandated testing or the Basic Education Program.

(D) We need more technical schools since not every child is interested in going to college.  We need to restore technical classes to our high schools and provide the student with a certificate in certain areas so they can get a good paying job out of high school if that is what they want to do.  This would help train the employees we need to recruit jobs to Tennessee.

(E) We need to undo bad decisions rather than trying to fix those bad decisions.

(F)   We need to provide adequate security and protection for our teachers in classroom settings and back them up when they are confronted with angry, unruly and potentially violent students

BLACK: The looming teacher shortage is the greatest challenge facing education. Half of Tennessee’s teachers will retire or leave the profession in the next decade. The next Governor will be a key factor in how we solve this problem.

A second challenge for education in Tennessee is expanding our focus on college readiness to include career readiness as well. There is widespread agreement for a renewed focus on Career and Technical Education but it is crucial we have a plan as we move toward that goal.

Another challenge for Tennessee is making sure students explore various career paths before graduation. The renewed emphasis on CTE is a welcome development, but it is just one tool in the toolbox in exposing students to all the careers from which they can choose.


  • Completing the Drive to 55. For us to reach the goal of having 55 percent of Tennessee’s population having some credential past high school by the year 2025; we have to find ways to make Tennessee the best place to be a teacher. That means teachers need support, more and better communication and input as we continue improving education in Tennessee.
  • Moving beyond the traditional idea of K-12 and instead focus on “K to J” education — Kindergarten to Job. As Governor, I want to make it a priority to see that every student graduating has the skills and ability to get a high-quality job.
  • Supporting the talent pipeline of educators in our state by investing in teachers and working to develop the best principles in the south. Without these two crucial leadership roles — teachers and principals — improving education is impossible.  

HARWELL: We have been evaluating the amount of testing required by state and local governments, because we know too much testing is hard on students. However, we still want to maintain our standards and be able to measure progress, so there is a balance to strike. We also need to ensure our students are reading by the third grade—increasing literacy should be a priority. And finally, we need to continue our efforts to increase the number of students obtaining a certificate or degree from a post-secondary institution. The emphasis on the importance of this can begin in our K-12 schools.

LEE: (i) Improving working conditions and ensuring our educators are in an environment that promotes quality professional development, team collaboration, and inclusive of the input of our educators on an ongoing basis.

(ii) Literacy at early childhood sets a critical foundation for educational success. But when it comes to our reading benchmarks, less than half of our third-grade students are where they need to be. Closing this gap will take substantial work at the state and local level, and will take time to achieve.

(iii) Career and technical education is a work-in-progress, but I believe it is the key to the economic prosperity of our state. Our next governor has the opportunity to lead a revolutionary period of growth in CTE, and we should be ready to challenge old assumptions and consider innovative opportunities to help children acquire the skills needed for success in life.


What are the steps that the state and local districts need to take to address the challenges you identified? What impact will that have on classroom teachers?

BEAVERS: State and local government need to make the changes necessary to make our education system work and make sure our children get a great education.  The more local control the better since counties from Mountain City to Memphis are so different.

BLACK:  Much of Tennessee’s teacher shortage lies in grades 7-12. Shortages in Pre-K through Grade 6 exist mostly in Special Education and English Language Learners (ELL). ELL (formerly English as a Second Language), World Languages, Math and Science are the areas where the shortage is most keenly felt. However, shortages are not geographically uniform. Urban areas need more ELL teachers whereas rural areas do not – they are lacking World Languages teachers.

One way to help solve the shortage is to employ market forces. Incentivize teachers to teach in subjects or regions where shortages exist. In addition, we need to review curriculum standards to see if certain standards may be driving the shortage in a given content area.

Regarding career readiness, I would like to see a dual track diploma system offering more diverse courses. Let’s let students get a license to practice a trade so they can begin their career on the day they graduate from high school. We need to put more energy and resources into post-secondary options like TCATs and Community Colleges and make them available to 7-12 grade students.

To help students zero in on career paths, we should begin aptitude testing in the middle school years. Let’s let students see the industries and careers available for an individual with their God-given talents and abilities.

BOYD: For us to be successful in any of the areas I outlined in the previous question, we must get serious about making sure we put teachers and school leaders at the center of the conversation around school improvement. At the end of the day, learning happens in the classroom with a caring, trusted, highly effective teacher. If we are truly devoted to putting students first, our efforts to improve education must go hand in hand with proper, effective support and development for our school’s teachers.

HARWELL: On testing, the state and local governments need to have open communication to ensure that there is not too much, but we are still getting the information we need. This will have a big impact on classroom teachers, and hopefully provide more instruction time. Literacy by the third grade will take all hands on deck—state and local governments, educators, communities, and families. And to prepare our students for the workforce, schools need to work with post-secondary institutions and those in the community to ensure we are teaching the skills needed for high-paying jobs.

LEE: New challenges will always emerge, but I believe a fundamental operational principle going forward should be to respond and include the input of our educators in our policy. I also believe, fundamentally, that our state education policy should support, not supplant, local school district efforts to improve student achievement for all children, and to meet a vision that fits the needs of the local community and of our state.

One need we must respond to is the reality that if our educators are overworked, or lack the preparation and support they need to succeed, we will continue to face a challenge in recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest. As part of our response, our state and local leaders should engage in a full review of how our current policies impact the working conditions needed for teachers to thrive.

One priority for improvement should be how we approach professional development. It starts at our institutions of higher education, but it continues throughout a teacher’s career, particularly as new models and new insights emerge. We should encourage efforts to bring educators together in relevant communities of practice, and seek opportunities to put experienced teachers in a position to lead and develop other teachers, and reward those teachers who help lead. With 65,000 teachers across Tennessee, we have an abundant and underutilized resource of expertise, and I believe that if make the right investments to connect teachers across districts and schools, we can support of a culture of collaboration that helps everyone succeed.

Our support for educators will be critical as take on two major challenges facing our state: (i) Literacy, and (ii) Career and technical education. Success on both fronts will take substantial vision and effort from our communities and our state.

We know from experience that poor literacy at third grade leads to challenges later on in life, impacting high school graduation rates, poverty, and even increased rates of incarceration. But currently, less than half of Tennessee’s third graders are reading at grade level. The work our teachers accomplish in early childhood lays a foundation for success through post-secondary, and I believe we have an urgent need to invest in the instructional support necessary to help our educators meet the challenge. Efforts like Read to Be Ready demonstrate a commitment from the state that we should build upon, but to achieve success this must truly be a team effort that our state backs fully with improved resources and creative partnerships.

At the other end of a child’s school career, we currently have 4 out of 10 Tennessee high school graduates who don’t go onto a post-secondary option. And far too many of them graduate unequipped and unprepared for today’s job market. This is an issue very dear to me, because developing a trained workforce has been my life for the last 35 years. At Lee Company, we employ several hundred plumbers, pipefitters, and HVAC technicians, and even though we have been one of the most competitive employers in the industry, we’ve had to overcome serious challenges in recruiting and growing a workforce that meets the needs of our customers. We responded to the challenge by developing our own technical education program, and we’re fortunate to be one of many companies who have committed to growing job skills in Tennessee.

As we look towards the next 8 years Tennessee, our CTE instructors will likely face new challenges regarding training, equipment, and coordination at the school level and with our TBR institutions. But I believe if we support our local districts with aligned investments at every level, and if we commit to a stronger partnership with private industry, we can and will lead the nation in giving every student opportunities for a career after graduation.


Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our educators?

BEAVERS: We need to try to do whatever we can to retain our talented teachers whose only desire is to teach our children.

BLACK: No one knows what a classroom needs like a teacher. It’s time the state and federal government stops telling teachers what to do and starts listening to what they need. If I am elected, teachers will always have a listening ear in the governor’s office. I want to know how they feel about teacher workload, out-of-pocket expenses and all facets of their job. The work teachers do for our kids, our communities, and our state is invaluable, and I would be proud to have their support.

BOYD: Thank you for what you do. Teachers do so much for students – often unheralded. Teachers remain some of the greatest unsung heroes in our society. As Governor, I will work to change that and highlight how you are the key to student success. I look forward to being a part of a growing movement in Tennessee that elevates teaching; a movement that truly celebrates the critical part teachers will play in the future success of Tennessee. I look forward to working with the more than 65,000 teachers and educators of our state to truly make Tennessee the Smartest State in the South.

HARWELL: From my years working on education issues in the Tennessee House of Representatives, I know the importance of supporting educators. When our educators have the support and tools they need, our Tennessee students have a better shot at succeeding. As governor, my door will always be open to you, and I hope you will share your thoughts, input, and expertise with me.

LEE: There is no doubt in my mind that what our teachers do in the classroom will have the biggest impact on our students. And as your Governor, I’d make it a consistent priority in our educational agenda to lift up the profession and ensure our policies and working conditions promote an environment where teachers can thrive.

At Lee Company we have grown because of the hard work and leadership of our employees. As a CEO, I believe that leadership is about getting out of the office and learning from our people on the ground. For our school leaders and educators, I’ll be a Governor is someone who is available and is willing to listen.

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3 Thoughts to “Debate Preview: GOP Gubernatorial Candidates Answer Five Questions on Education”

  1. Randall

    I’m a product of Tennessee public schools and unfortunately it shows. Our public schools are very flawed.

  2. 83ragtop50

    Does anyone else get tired of hearing about “Drive to 55” and all of the “free” tuition that Governor Haslam and his cronies have burdened us with?

  3. Eric

    Please stop calling them the democratic party. They are the democrat party. “Democratic party” is a misnomer they have gotten away with using for decades. What, pray tell, is democratic about them?