It was a forum at Belmont University co-sponsored by SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education, the organization founded by former U.S. Senator Bill Frist) and the state’s CBS television affiliates. Not so coincidentally, it paralleled the ongoing special session on education called by Governor Phil Bredesen.
In one sense the discussion was just that — a frank and open marshalling and vetting of ideas — and all seven candidates seemed to come prepared with considered ideas. In another sense, it was a political beauty contest, with the candidates competing with each other.
It was hard to pick a winner. Looked at one way, all have won and all must have prizes. 4th District congressman Zach Wamp, a Republican, continues to be the best communicator per se, GOP Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey came off as a resolute leader, former state House Democratic leader Kim McMillan exuded pure sincerity, Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam of the GOP was competence itself, Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, a Democrat, was Mr. Likeability, Shelby County D.A. Bill Gibbons, a Republican, suggested a tough-minded innovator, and state Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle was able to remind the audience at Belmont and on home TV that his was the campaign built around education.
There were some givens shared by all, and some distinct differences, mostly of the partisan sort.
The candidates agreed on a need for more interfacing between public education and the larger community and on more direct connections between the classroom and the workplace. They differed on the implications of that.
The Democrats favored continuing with current levels of pre-kindergarten education and were open to expansion of it. As McMillan put it, “Nothing is more important than pre-K education.” The Republicans, even Wamp, an early-childhood-education enthusiast, were willing, mainly for cost-cutting reasons to prune back pre-K to use as a tool “at-risk” students.
The idea of “leadership academies” for teachers and principals seemed to cross partisan boundaries, and the concept of “outcome-based” education received general support. Kyle urged a shift in goals from enrolling students to graduating them. There was a general concurrence in the idea of easing the transitions from community colleges to four-year institutions.
Everybody was on board with Bredesen’s idea of using student achievement scores and teacher evaluation data to improve teacher performance, though the Republicans were discernibly keener about sanctioning teachers. Gibbons was surprisingly confrontational, professing himself ready to “take on the political and educational bureaucracies,” and Ramsey was eager to elevate charter schools and home schooling vis-à-vis traditional public education. “I’ll put those home school scores up against any in the state,” is how he put it. Haslam stressed business models as the key to revamping the system.
Perhaps the staunchest defender of traditional education was McWherter, who responded to various proposals from the others to import outsiders into educational leadership roles by defending the status quo regarding the elevation of teachers to assistant principals to principals, as did Kyle. Perhaps understandably, McWherter favored full funding for objectives of the Basic Education Plan (BEP) advanced by his farther, former Governor Ned McWherter. He was also adamant against elected superintendents.
The best line of the night was Wamp’s. During his closing remarks, he extolled the state’s virtues, including its mountains and rivers and its achievements, including the fact that, “We even got rid of Lane Kiffin!”