GALLATIN, Tennessee – Governor Bill Lee came to Sumner County to celebrate Career Technical Education Day, part of the larger recognition of the national CTE month of February.
The event was held at the Bagsby Ranch, where Lee held a town hall on July 25, 2018, when there were still three days of early voting in the Republican primary before the August 2 election day. Reflecting on that day with its big crowd, the Governor said, “As we pulled in here today, I said it sure does feel different. A whole level of peace and calm,” adding, with a bit of levity, “I don’t gotta talk y’all into anything.”
Attendees of the CTE Day event included Director of Sumner County Schools Del Phillips, several school board members, State Representatives William Lamberth (R-Cottontown) and Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville), Compass (Community Outreach Making Partnerships At Sumner Schools) members, several elected officials as well as Sumner County Schools CTE educators and students.
As Governor Lee was introduced, he was presented with two gifts made by students of local CTE programs.
While the Governor said he talks a lot about CTE, he painted a broader picture when he said he also talks about vocational technical and agricultural education.
Early in his remarks, Governor Lee addressed the students, summing up the purpose of the event, “The reason that all these people are here and assembled and the reason that I’m doing what I’m doing is because of y’all.” After a round of applause, Lee continued, “We’ve lived our lives, and we want to create opportunities for the next generation of Tennesseans.”
Saying that it is “indicative of my belief that the most fundamentally important thing we can do in the state of Tennessee is to improve our education system,” Lee relayed that he spent the evening prior with the state board of education, who held a workshop earlier that afternoon at the Cordell Hull Building, he spent the morning touring a school, and would be touring another school after lunch at the CTE event talking with educators about vocational technical and agricultural education.
Connecting a major portion of his campaign platform with the topic of the day, Governor Lee said, “I campaigned for two years saying people want a good job, good school for their kid and a safe neighborhood. Well, if every kid had a good school, then they’d get a good job and they wouldn’t interact with the criminal justice system, so we’d have safe neighborhoods.”
“The real foundational truth is that if we invest in our education system and the continued transformation, then we’re going to be able to do what I’ve said I think Tennessee can do,” said Lee setting the larger goal, “and that’s lead the nation.”
A common theme throughout the Governor’s talk were the concepts of educational “pathways” and “opportunities,” which he often brought to life during his campaign, and again at the event, with the story of the young man citizen Bill Lee mentored. As Lee tells it, by the young man moving from one school to another, and his education trajectory changing, his life was changed.
Beyond his mentee, that experience expanded Lee’s interest, “not just in him, but in the kids that were left behind,” which evolved into him believing, “that every kid in this state ought to have an opportunity to have their life changed through the power of a good education.”
Whether they choose a four-year college, a two-year post-secondary option or go to work right out of high school, Lee said, “Every kid should use their gifts and their talents to find success in life, because education is not about a test score.” Lee’s conclusion, “It’s about preparing a child for success in life,” was met with a round of applause.
Reiterating a statement from his inaugural speech, Lee said, “Government’s not the answer to the problems we face, but you,” emphasizing “you” and gesturing toward those in attendance, “are the answer to the problems we face.”
Government, on the other hand, “can create an environment for the people and the private sector and the non-profit community.”
Lee recognized Sumner County’s “system of CTE or vocational technical agricultural education” as a model for what can be done all across the state, through “the engagement of the private sector and community leaders and the education system.”
Launched earlier in the week, Lee spoke of his very first legislative initiative the GIVE – Governor’s Initiative for Vocational Education – Act, being crafted with legislators.
Governor Lee later told The Tennessee Star in talking about the GIVE Act that it has “taken decades to erode the vocational technical education system, it will take years to redevelop it, but we have to take it one step at a time. The GIVE Act is the first step in that.”
Lee also told The Star he is hopeful that the GIVE Act “will provide 25 communities with a career technical program – and that will be year one – and we’ll go from there.”
While there are a number of things it will do, the Governor explained to CTE event attendees the two primary things the GIVE Act will do. The first is to invest funding in communities that don’t have a robust CTE vocational technical agricultural program. The second is to expand dual credit opportunities for students enrolled in vocational technical agricultural classes from two to four courses.
Ultimately, the goal is to craft the education system in a way to provide greater skills for “a whole lot of kids” so that they can have “a meaningful, powerful career shortly after they get out of high school,” said Lee.
Lee points out that vocational education is not what we used to think about, but much broader.
Indeed, the printed program for the Sumner County Schools CTE Day listed 16 major categories from Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources to Transportation, Distribution & Logistics and a wide variety in between along with multiple specialties within each category.
Alluding to a meeting he had this week with the COO and chief executives of Amazon, which is moving an operation to Nashville and bringing 5,000 jobs, Lee cited that they, Google and other technology companies are dropping their requirement for a four-year degree.
Of the trend with such leading companies, “You know something’s changing in the workforce,” said Lee, while he pointed out, “What they do require is high skill.”
Elaborating on that, Lee said, “They require technology-skilled students, whether it’s coding, or computer science or any number of technology-related vocational skills, that’s where the workforce is headed in part.”
To that end, the Governor said that very soon there will be another initiative related to STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – education, “around the goal to have computer science programming in every district.”
While Lee acknowledged the “remarkable work in the education system in this state,” referring to the state’s distinction as the highest increasing in student outcomes, he took the opportunity to add, “But, I will say, we have a long way yet to go.”
The way to do that, according to Lee, is “to take the improvements that we’ve made in education and build on it.”
Going back to his campaign platform, Lee said he “ran around this state talking about the importance of vocational education for two years.” While Lee talked about his role as governor, “The Lord granted me great favor and put me in the honored spot of being Governor, and now I get to do it, and we are going to do it,” he also credited those in the room.
Lee added, “You’re already doing it. This room is filled with people who are more passionate about this than I am. Kudos to you for doing it and for creating a pathway and for laying a pattern and for designing opportunities that we can duplicate across this state.”
“One of the reasons that we’re here today,” referring to Sumner County and the school system, “is because of the fact that you actually are doing it, and it allows us to then go to other places and say ‘you need to see what’s happening there,’” said Lee.
Prior to making his remarks, Governor Lee enjoyed a lunch prepared by the Culinary Arts Class of Gallatin High School, while sitting between two students who spoke to the attendees before his arrival, as part of the formal three-hour program.
Sumner County Schools high school seniors, Emily Hickman from Beech High School and President of HOSA-Future Health Professionals and Bill Mouchette from Station Camp High School and President of DECA gave testimonials as to their CTE experience.
Lee said about his lunch tablet mates, “I sat here between two remarkable students on the pathways to success and that’s what we’re about to create: pathways to success.”
For his part, Mouchette helped make the case for Governor Lee’s vocational technical agricultural education in his comments. He credited his CTE education for changing his plans as a “freshman hoping to attend a liberal arts university seeking a political science degree to senior year planning to attend a Christian university double majoring in economics and finance, this comes much to my parents’ pleasure.”
Adding to the need for CTE, Mouchette said, “The truth is, however, there is much more to technical education than DECA, and the need for these other programs is ever increasing.”
After making the point, “The United States is entering into a labor shortage that may shake the economic, political and societal foundations of our society,” Mouchette went on to cite some enlightening statistics to explain the situation.
By 2025, a quarter of the U.S. labor workforce will be over 55 years old, 80 percent, of construction companies have difficulties finding skilled labor, and since 2001 the United States has lost 42,400 factories to countries such as China, amounting to 5.5 million jobs. Nearly a quarter of Americans receive significant not-job-related financial aid from the federal government amounting to over a trillion dollars each year. If that’s not enough, at the end of this school year nearly 50 million Americans will owe student loan debt equaling 1.5 trillion – with a T – dollars and the average monthly payment for a graduate will be $351. By 2040, China is expected to triple the US economy. The long-term economic outlook is becoming desperate.
In the early days of the Obama administration, the President invited men such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other titans of modern American industry why they were moving their factories out of the U.S. and into overseas nations. The unanimous answer from these folks was that other nations, such as China, had a ready supply of skilled labor that the U.S. lacks. It wasn’t the price of paying American workers as the common stigma would have you believe but the quality of American education.
If we Americans do not innovate the way in which we educate our youth while still preserving their right to choose their own career path our nation could find itself in an economic freefall. Still yet, there is hope. The United States is the single greatest marvel of government and political thought which has graced the face of this world. Why? The answer is simple: In America, anyone from anywhere can do anything upon assimilating into our national culture. As Dr. King said ‘Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ It is time to put this American greatness back to work, and that begins with how we handle our educational system.
This means a fundamental shift of the American education system to focus on allowing students to graduate from their local high school with a technical degree or training ranging from welding to concrete management instead of sending them to a university or college to get a mountain of student loans with a pigeonhole degree and no job. If my experience with career and technical education has only taught me one thing it is that free enterprise and competition ensure commerce. If we can put private business in competition with one another to train America’s youth while they are in high school and middle school, we can create an educational system that will not only produce some of the best technical workers in the world, but bring the American economy back in full force.
As I stand here today and speak to you, I see the faces of the students with whom I walk the halls. I know their hearts, their dreams, their desires. The majority of students do not want fame or fortune. They want to provide a good life for themselves and their future families. They want to work, and contrary to popular belief, most technical occupations pay better than occupations which require a collegiate diploma. Students need only to be taught what technical careers can offer.
This fundamental shift in education will provide students with the opportunity to grow up in a public educational system that seeks to identify the passions of each individual student and allow them to turn those skills into profitable vocations that benefit the local and national economy. Not every student needs to or wants to go to college.
The majority of students should be civic minded and technically educated by the time they graduate high school or a two-year trade school, and right now most are graduating lacking both. It is time to give American students a chance to succeed. It is time to put American students to work. It is time to rebuild the American middle class.
Thank for your time and allowing me to share my experience and thoughts with you, and more importantly thank you for giving your time and effort to bettering the education of students.
Laura Baigert is a senior reporter with The Tennessee Star.