By Dr. Jesse Register
June 7, 2017
This article was first published by the USA Today Network-Tennessee.
I served as the director of Metro Nashville Public Schools for six of the eight years Mayor Karl Dean led the city of Nashville. While we didn’t agree on everything, we did agree on the importance of public education. Karl Dean was a true education mayor.
Now that he’s running for governor, there are critics with questionable political motivations who want to distort Mayor Dean’s record on education. However, the facts are indisputable. Mayor Dean did what he promised to do. He made education his top priority, especially when it came to our city’s budget.
I was a superintendent in four school districts in North Carolina and Tennessee for 27 years before I retired from Metro Schools in 2015. Mayor Dean championed the greatest financial support for public education that I experienced during my career, which was particularly significant given the time we were in.
I came to Nashville in 2009, just as our nation was really starting to feel the effects of the Great Recession. Many of my colleagues across Tennessee and elsewhere were struggling with budget cuts. Some had to layoff teachers and even close schools. Not here in Nashville.
Mayor Dean managed to preserve funding for our schools even though it meant cutting nearly every other Metro department. And as soon as the economy and city budget allowed, he began investing heavily in our school district.
By the time he left office, the budget for Metro Schools had grown by $218 million — a 37 percent increase. Our student population was growing at the same time, but the investments Mayor Dean made far surpassed our enrollment growth. In fact, local per pupil funding rose nearly 20 percent under Mayor Dean.
He made these investments in collaboration with our Metro Council and our School Board. At the peak of our overlapping tenures, our city leadership was in lock step, fully supporting our school district’s forward progress.
As a result of Mayor Dean’s strong leadership and all of us working together, teacher pay increased. We went from ranking 30th in the state for beginning teacher pay to third.
We invested in the instructional use of technology. Mayor Dean even provided a mid-year boost of $6 million to purchase computers, which put us ahead in the state as plans were being made to move to online testing.
We experienced historic investments in our capital needs, as well. The combined capital spending plans from Mayor Dean’s administration provided $629 million for school building expansions and renovations.
And his commitment didn’t stop with the school’s district’s budget alone. He created Limitless Libraries, a partnership where students can check out any book in our city’s library catalogue and have it delivered to their schools.
He brought leaders from the music industry together to create Music Makes Us — a world-class music education program that is now the envy of other school districts nationwide.
He created the Nashville After Zone Alliance, a system of free, high-quality afterschool programs, by engaging our nonprofit community and securing highly sought-after grant dollars from the Wallace Foundation.
We were able to make significant gains during this time. Academic performance improved for all students in all subject areas — in many cases, we saw double-digit increases.
Our achievement gaps became narrower than statewide averages. Our graduation rate went up, improving even faster for Hispanic and African American students than our student population as a whole.
When Mayor Dean and I both left our respective roles, the state of our schools was far different than when I first came to Nashville. We took a failing school district on the verge of state takeover and transformed it into a district with tremendous progress and potential.
Our teachers, principals and school district leaders worked hard to make that happen. But none of it would have been possible without the support and visionary leadership of a true education mayor like Karl Dean.
Dr. Jesse Register retired as the Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools in 2015. He currently serves as a Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership at Belmont University and the Director of the Belmont Center for Improvement of Educational Systems.