Live from Music Row Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson to the newsmakers line to discuss the structure of state education policy, local school boards, and the importance of their elections.
Leahy: On our newsmaker line we welcome back State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. Jack, thanks for your patience. If you would indulge me. Jack, I just have to read this breaking story.
I’m not asking you to comment on this breaking story. We’ll get back to education in just a minute. I just have to read this because it’s funny. (Laughs) Are you ready for this Jack?
Johnson: I’m ready.
Leahy: This statement by Donald J. Trump just came out, like a minute ago. I’ll just read it. You don’t have to comment on it, but I find it very amusing. Just like in the 2020 presidential elections, it was announced overnight in New York City that vast, irregularities and mistakes were made in that Eric Adams, despite an almost insurmountable lead, may not win the race.
The fact is, based on what has happened, nobody will ever know who really won. The presidential race was a scam and a hoax, with numbers and results being found that are massive, shocking, and determinative.
Watch the mess you’re about to see in New York City. It will go on forever. They should close the books and do it all over again the old-fashioned way when we had results that were accurate and meaningful. Jack, thanks for letting me get that statement out. I’m not going to ask you for a comment. (Laughter) Isn’t that amusing?
Johnson: I would like to make one statement. And that’s why in Tennessee we don’t have universal mail-in voting. But we have a very strict system. You can vote absentee, but you must request the ballot with the signature.
That signature is verified, and you must do it and have a reason for voting absentee. And I believe that the root of many of the problems in last November’s elections, and I do think it’s very ironic, I believe, is a word you used earlier in the program that New York (Laughter) and what is going on is because of their massive mail-out voting.
It’s problematic. We’re not going to do that in Tennessee I can assure you.
Leahy: All I have to say to that Jack is, Amen brother. And thank goodness for the Tennessee General Assembly and for Secretary of State Tre Hargett, because we don’t have those kinds of problems here in Tennessee.
So a good point. Thanks for that comment. It’s just so funny. I just had to bring it up. (Chuckles) Now, Jack, we’re talking a little bit about education and it seems to me that we have at 145 separate school districts in the state, and they all have boards of education and people run for it.
And here’s what I’ve noticed. I liked to get your comment on this, and these are probably groups that you deal with, but I have a perspective that maybe they’re not doing such a hot job. So what happens is people will run for the board.
They’ll have an agenda that’s more traditional education. They get elected to the board, and then they go off to training with the group called the Tennessee School Boards Association.
And somehow they get the impression from that training, this is how I see it, that their job is not to run the schools, but to do whatever the school Superintendent does. I think that’s wrong. Am I off on that, or is there something there to it?
Johnson: No, you’re exactly right in terms of the way it should operate. The way that the system is designed. And it is it’s a little bit complex. But I think on paper, it’s a good system, which is that you have the state, you have the General Assembly, people that are elected like myself, to serve in the General Assembly.
We set broad education policy for the state in terms of standards and the way schools should operate, so that we have a degree of consistency across the state. And then we have created political subdivisions, that is what they’re legally referred to as, in the form of a school board school.
We call them local education agencies, LEAs, or local education authorities. Sometimes people say that. So we create these LEAs that are run by an elected school board. And it’s not a perfect analogy, but I think it’s the best we have, which is to think of that school board as a board of directors.
That’s what they are. And just like with a company, a board of directors hires a CEO to run the day-to-day operations. And so you have locally elected school boards that set the local policy that makes those decisions about the curriculum and about things that are important to the community that might be different.
As I said earlier before the break, from community to community. That’s why we don’t want consistency across the state. The elected boards are the ones that are accountable to the electorate.
They’re duly constitutionally elected. They should set the local policy and then that policy should be enacted by the director of schools or the school Superintendent. Whatever you choose to call them.
And so I agree with you wholeheartedly. And I do see, and we’ve certainly had a testimony, and we’ve had folks that have come in and talked about that its kind of the inverse that the director comes in and tells the board what needs to be done from a policy standpoint.
And that’s fine for them to make recommendations. But ultimately, that policy should be set by the elected school board.
Leahy: Yeah, I agree with that. And it seems to me, however, that the way this institution is set up, it is very difficult for a school board member to come in that wants to reverse course from these various elements of critical race series that are now creeping into the school systems and other things that they don’t like.
Very difficult for one member of a 12 member board or two or three to change course and then actually to get the local school district director to follow their direction. Instead, it seems like the school superintendents are unaccountable and tell the school board what to do, which is exactly the opposite.
I think that makes people very discouraged. Last question for you, what do you think we do in the future on this?
Johnson: I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I’m encouraged that there is more engagement from parents and communities relative to the school board. We have school board elections next year, and I think that there’s going to be a great high level of engagement. And that’s the answer to the problem that you just outlined.
Leahy: Let’s hope it happens that way.
Listen to the full first hour here:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Jack Johnson” by Jack Johnson.
Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed all-star panelist Clint Brewer and State Rep. Scott Cepicky to the studio to discuss the needed changes in the cultures that lead the educational systems.
Leahy: We are having too much fun here with recovering journalists and our all-star panelist, Clint Brewer, and state Representative Scott Cepicky from Maury County. So, Scott, you were talking a little bit about accountability in the LEA’s, the local education authorities. And you’ve got one down in Shelby County that is performing very poorly. When you talk to those guys, do they acknowledge the people running the show? Do they acknowledge that they’re not performing well? And are they open to fixing it?
Cepicky: Well, the first thing you have to do is you’ve got to reach out and you’ve got to go visit the situation and try to understand the situation.
Leahy: Well, that makes sense. But you’re up here in Nashville. Have you gone down and talked to them?
Cepicky: Yes sir. Myself, Mark White and Debra Moody, all chairman of education.
Leahy: Mark White’s been on the show. A good friend of the show. He represents that area.
Cepicky: Yes, sir. And Debra Moody is just North.
Leahy: That’s right.
Cepicky: And so we thought it would behoove us after what we just did in the special session with the struggles that Memphis City has. Because when you talk about Shelby County remember you have Bartlett and that very high-performing schools. But Memphis is struggling. And we took a visit down there on a Friday, went down, and talked to the Superintendent of schools, Joris Ray.
I wanted to have a frank conversation with him. We want to do what you need to do. We want to help you, but we’ve got to get results because of the disproportionate way that not only Shelby, Memphis, but Nashville City schools disproportionately affect the rest of Tennessee by churning out “their graduates.” And the reception down there, I could say, was cold.
Leahy: Cold. frigid, icy, unfriendly, unfriendly. But you hold it now. Joris Ray, he’s the superintendent of the public school system down there.
Leahy: You are legislators that have the power of the purse.
Cepicky: We are concerned citizens that took the time to come down and talk to them that have the ability to help.
Leahy: You have the ability to help. Okay, I’ll take that framing.
Cepicky: Ability to help.
Leahy: So you would think that if you are in the worst-performing…
Cepicky: One of.
Leahy: One of the three worst-performing of the 147 LEA’s in the state of Tennessee, you would think you would be open to help. But Joris Ray was not that open.
Cepicky: No, he was cold towards us. If you know Representative Moody and Chairman White, they’re very kind and gracious.
Leahy: Well, you’re kind and gracious.
Cepicky: To a point I am.
Leahy: Clint, you are going to know where this comes from because Clint is a native Tennesseean. I am a transplant in Yankee, from upstate New York. You’re a Midwesterner from Missouri.
Cepicky: But remember, we chose Tennessee.
Leahy: We chose Tennessee. Let’s just say native Tennesseeans.
Brewer: Born in Memphis.
Leahy: Okay, there you go. But native Tennesseeans have a certain graciousness about them that well, at least upstate New Yorkers don’t always have.
Cepicky: The conversation was very simple. Our vision of what Memphis could be. What Memphis really could be with an outstanding educational system flowing for its citizens. For children that are born in Memphis, to have the opportunity of knowledge. To be able to take that knowledge and use it in their life to make anything out of themselves they want to be.
Leahy: The American dream.
Cepicky: Instead I had the superintendent telling me that I don’t understand the people down there.
Leahy: Is that what he said?
Cepicky: Yes. And it was shocking to hear. And my goal, if anybody asked me, Rep. Cepicky, what’s your goal for education in Tennessee? It’s very simple. I can tell you right now is that every child read, write, and do math by third grade, and everything we do is about being number one in the country in education.
Leahy: Okay. Clint, that sounds like a very common-sense goal. Right? Read and write?
Brewer: It’s a very clear-eyed simple goal to understand. The representative makes a great point but this is the same thing that’s been said to our two largest school districts for the better part of the last 30 years. And this problem has been pervasive. It has not been solved. The answer is simply, you need to see a change in the culture for who leads these systems. And that’s the only thing that will do it. You need the community rising up to say this is not enough. To say this isn’t good enough. And that’s what it will take.
Leahy: That’s a very good point. See, change in the culture. What do you think?
Cepicky: Well, we have to. We have no choice. We had one of the first times that I think ever happened. Tony Parker, the commissioner of corrections, came into the education committee last week and talked to us about the direct correlation between education and lack thereof and incarceration. And they have a program where when the inmates come into the penitentiary system, they screen them for their educational levels. Women read on about a third-grade level in penitentiaries. Men read on a first-grade level.
Leahy: First-grade level.
Cepicky: We all can agree that to get to go to a penitentiary, you have done something that you probably deserve to be in there. But is there some responsibility on us and as its legislators that they got through the system at a first-grade level? and to defend the LEAs and I’ll tell you this, to defend them we have a policy in place that in high school if they do what’s right for a student (i.e. retain a student for a year to get them on grade level).
Leahy: Right. Which makes sense. In other words, if they’re not performing at a level and you want to just get them up to the level where they should be, give them a next year back. That makes common sense right?
Cepicky: So they can succeed and get what we want which is Tennessee and is educated, someone who can make informed decisions for themselves…
Cepicky: And contribute to society. But we penalize them for doing that at the state level by dinging their report card.
Leahy: And it doesn’t make any sense.
Cepicky: And so I’m carrying a bill next week in committee that we’re going to look in to figure out, how can we fix this? How can we let the school systems do what they need to do, which is best for the students without penalizing to do it?
Brewer: I think in Tennessee, it’s no different than anywhere else. When you get into very inner-city environments and you get into very rural environments, you run into many of the same challenges. the families often, there’s not the support structure for the kids. My wife works in the county school system and I know a lot of times just to the point about Memphis, or you could say there’s about a lot of rural counties that, sometimes those kids the only meal they’re getting is the meal they get at school.
And so there are children and families who are up against a lot to take advantage of what otherwise is an adequate school system. Where I think the work is that needs to be done is outside the power structure. I think that conversations with leadership in large school districts at this point are probably not going to be fruitful. And what leaders in Nashville have to do at the state House is to talk directly to folks in the communities about what their expectations are. Which I can assure you are a lot higher than what they’re being delivered.
Leahy: Representative Cepicky, so Clint said something interesting, that conversations with these failing LEA leaderships are not going to be fruitful. I guess your personal experience, at least with one of these failing LEAs, would confirm that?
Cepicky: That is true. We have spoken with them. And as you make yourself available to the public, you’d be surprised how many people reach out to you from those struggling school systems that are wanting help.
Leahy: What do they say from a struggling school? What did they say to you?
Cepicky: Do whatever we have to do to affect the change needed for their kids.
Brewer: And let me make the point here, too, we’re talking about failing school systems. There are plenty of school systems in the state that are just above failing. They’re not statistically at the red flag level of Davidson and Shelby Counties, but they’re still not doing a super great job for the children in their district.
Leahy: Exactly right. On that, state representative Cepicky what’s your schedule today? Are you going to go off and do some business, or you’re gonna be able to stick with us for the rest of the show, or are you going to want to go off? Because I see you checking your clock, you’re gonna head out?
Cepicky: I’m gonna head out. I’ve got a very, very, big bill on the House floor today.
Leahy: Okay, well, State Representative Scott Cepicky, thanks so much for joining us today. What a wonderful conversation. I’m so happy to get to know you.
Cepicky: I appreciate being here.
Leahy: And come back again if you will and tell all your friends in the General Assembly that this is a place to come to get your message out.
Cepicky: Thank you, Michael.
Listen to the full third hour:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.