Career educator: Tennessee Gov. Lee fooled me into thinking he cares about public education

July 14, 2022 7:05 am
Gov. Bill Lee talks with students at Haywood High School on Sept. 28 2021. (Photo: Official photo of Gov. Bill Lee)

Gov. Bill Lee talks with students at Haywood High School on Sept. 28 2021. (Photo: Official photo of Gov. Bill Lee)

In September, I accepted a position as the Chief Communications Officer for Haywood County Schools in Brownsville, Tenn.  For anyone unfamiliar, Brownsville is the home of singer Tina Turner, the Hatchie River, and is about 30 miles east of Memphis.  Since last fall, though, its identity has been found as the new home of Ford’s Blue Oval City.  

Prior to my communications role, I was a classroom teacher for 19 years. Both of my parents were public school educators, too: my mom for over 40 years; my dad for a handful before becoming a salesman. I attended public schools from kindergarten through my high school graduation, and then taught in the very system from which I graduated until last September.  

My job in Haywood County is to tell the story of our district— to give context to data, to spotlight our successful athletic programs, to showcase our students and teachers.  Two weeks after I started my job, the announcement of Blue Oval City enveloped our district office and Haywood County as a whole.  

Our district leadership team sat in the professional development suite and watched Gov. Bill Lee announce the impending arrival of Ford Motor Co. to West Tennessee and to Haywood County, specifically.  He used the words “workforce development” multiple times, and discussed the need to continue to invest in Career/Technical Programs in high schools across the state.  

As Lee finished his speech, he immediately got in the backseat of a black SUV and rode east on Interstate 40 to Haywood High School.  

As the governor’s caravan rolled into the high school parking lot, members of the student council were waiting.  I was positioned with my camera to get the best shots I could of Lee with our students; he seemed at ease and personable.  

Gov. Bill Lee seemed at ease and personable during a September visit to Haywood County High School and appeared to be genuinely interested in a circuit board where a student was wiring a light bulb. Now, I’m frustrated with myself for ever thinking that Lee cares about our students in Haywood County or public education in Tennessee. 

He talked with our students as they made their way to the CTE building on our high school campus.  I’ll admit, I was caught up in the moment.  Despite Lee’s strong push for vouchers and his support for the false narrative of critical race theory in public schools, I found myself almost liking him when I watched him interact with our students.  

He toured our welding area and industrial maintenance facility.  He bent down and seemed genuinely interested in a circuit board where a student was wiring a light bulb.  I continued to snap as many pictures as I could because important people in government rarely make it to rural West Tennessee.

After he spoke to our CTE students and teachers and discussed the opportunities that Blue Oval City could provide for them and other students for years to come, he posed for pictures and then climbed back in his black SUV and left.  

Since that September afternoon, Lee has signed legislation that will allow an unprecedented number of charter schools to possibly take root in Tennessee, thereby siphoning funds from local public school systems.  That comes on top of his 2019 push for education savings accounts, commonly known as school vouchers, that would allow public money to follow students to private schools.  Most recently, he was caught on video listening to his educational advisor, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, say that teachers come from “the dumbest part of every college”, and that when it comes to teaching, “basically anyone can do it.”  

When Lee finally addressed these comments, he did so on a conservative talk radio station in Nashville. Instead of strongly supporting and defending teachers against the ignorant statements made by Arnn, Lee dove right back into the false narratives of public school indoctrination of students in regards to CRT and gender identity. 

I was disappointed but not surprised at Lee’s comments. More than anything, however, I was frustrated with myself for ever thinking for a moment that Lee cares about our students in Haywood County or public education in Tennessee.  He has proven time and time again that he does not.

For all of his “workforce development” gusto and his talk of creating a pipeline of workers for industry in Tennessee, Lee is running an operation that is counterproductive to that narrative.  

I can promise you that there will be no CTE programs at charter schools created by Arnn.  Vouchers that follow students to private schools will only take money away from vocational opportunities in public education.  

Lee has to either commit to fully supporting public education and everything that it offers, or own the fact that he believes the statements made by Arnn are true; it can’t be both.  

It’s been said that Lee has higher political aspirations than the Governor’s Residence.  I believe it.  His politics are just as extreme as former President Donald Trump’s, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s, but he’s quiet enough to do more damage than they ever could.  

What we are seeing is the slow process of the dismantling of public education in Tennessee by groups creating false narratives, using public funds to prop up charter schools that will rewrite the teaching of history, and having leaders like Lee be complictly silent when people commit verbal crimes against public education.  

Like many politicians, Lee proved himself to be a great actor last September as he toured Haywood High School and feigned genuine interest in our public school.  Maybe his future lies in Hollywood instead of Washington, DC.

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Gabe Hart
Gabe Hart

Gabe Hart is chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools and a former teacher of English and Literature. He writes a monthly op-ed column for The Jackson Sun as well as feature stories for the quarterly journal, "Our Jackson Home." He also serves on the education committee for the newly formed Jackson Equity Project which seeks to advocate for equity and justice for marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people living in Jackson. Beyond writing and teaching, Gabe enjoys spending time with his fourteen year old daughter, exercising, and listening to music (specifically The National and Jason Isbell.)