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Just as the mayoral field finished taking shape in April, Vanderbilt’s annual poll of Nashvillians came out and made one thing perfectly clear: Whether or not the mayor has control over the Metro Nashville Public Schools system, education should be a top — if not the top — priority of the next administration.

“How much of a priority do you think [respondents were given a list of issues] should be for Nashville’s next mayor?” the poll question read — and 74 percent responded to education as “a top priority.” It was the highest-scoring issue in the poll, ahead of crime, affordable housing and homelessness. 

MNPS is a big, urban school system — the district’s 81,000 students put it in the top 40 in the country — and there are multiple challenges to Nashville schools: Thirty-seven percent of students are economically disadvantaged; 28 percent have limited English proficiency; 14 percent have some form of disability. There are 135 languages spoken by MNPS students in total, and the district is one of the most diverse in the state: Thirty-nine percent of the students are Black, 32 percent Latino and 4 percent Asian. And enrollment is trending down from a high of almost 88,000 six years ago, a result of declining birthrates and migration from the county among school-age populations. 

Of MNPS’ 162 schools, 19 are on the state’s “priority” list of underperforming schools, or almost 12 percent — a number that actually has improved in recent years. This year, 34 percent of third-graders face summer school or being held back for a year due to a new state law mandating retention for low test scores in reading. It’s not all bad news, though. MNPS placed 48 schools on the state’s “reward” list and was named an “advancing” district by the state.

This is the landscape the next mayor will inherit, all without the ability to hire or fire a single person or select their own leader to run the school district. That’s all reserved for the school board. The mayor’s only lever is the budget, which past mayors have used in a variety of fashions. For example, Mayor Phil Bredesen traded capital improvements — his administration built 32 schools — for promises from the district on standards. 

But even the budget has come under strain. Whether or not you support charters, an increasing percentage of the MNPS budget is devoted to them. The net fiscal impact of charter schools has risen from $60 million in 2013 to more than $250 million in the 2023-24 school year. And as a 2023 report from the Nashville Public Education Foundation notes, more are coming whether or not the school board authorizes them — despite 2-to-1 public opposition.

“As a result of the 2019 law that created the Tennessee Charter School Commission, which can authorize charter schools at the state level, the MNPS School Board no longer has complete control over when or where a public school may open in Nashville making it difficult for the district to forecast enrollment in its schools and drawing funding away from the district,” reads the NPEF’s report. “Today, the number of state-approved charter schools in Nashville is five, with four additional schools approved to begin operating in the coming years.”

And the impact of vouchers will be felt by the district soon. Gov. Bill Lee’s pilot program, which initially targets Memphis and Nashville, awarded more than 600 vouchers between the two systems, meaning that up to $40 million will go to private schools instead of MNPS.

What has John Cooper’s administration done on education?

In short, Cooper has thrown a lot of money at MNPS.

This year’s budget includes an extra $100 million in new operational funds for the district, the largest such increase in the city’s history. The bulk of that will raise teacher salaries to be the highest in the state and includes, for the first time, family leave for all MNPS employees. 

“I remember being at McGavock High School during my campaign and learning that teachers did not have this basic benefit,” said Cooper when announcing his budget. “Teachers were trying to time their family planning around summer vacation. I left that day determined to change that — and we did.”

The new money also raises pay for support staff like bus drivers and cafeteria workers, as well as administrators, including principals and associate principals. Both Cooper and the district have emphasized the need to push pay higher in response to the city’s skyrocketing cost of living, all without much help from the state. Lee put an extra $1 billion for schools in the state budget, but Tennessee’s new funding formula means Nashville will see only 2 percent of those dollars, despite having 8 percent of the state’s students. The rise in teacher pay has come almost entirely from investments at the local level.

Cooper also added more than $10 million for a pilot program to address problems with substitutes and $8 million for free lunches. 

Some of the most visible signs of Cooper’s influx of cash are on the capital side, where 75 schools got improvements to air quality last year and three new schools have been built: a middle school in Cane Ridge, an elementary school in Goodlettsville and a new high school in Bellevue to replace Hillwood, which will open this year. Metro also will make a one-time allocation of $66 million to allow for pre-K space to be carved out of existing school buildings.

What could the next mayor do?

Taking a long view, investing in early childhood education and child care could show substantial benefits down the road. 

In his 2012 analysis, Nobel economist James Heckman argued that money spent in the first five years of life has a huge return on investment.

“The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families,” Heckman writes. “Starting at age three or four is too little too late, as it fails to recognize that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. Efforts should focus on the first years for the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. The best investment is in quality early childhood development from birth to five for disadvantaged children and their families.”

Currently, pre-K programs in MNPS are limited, with fees assessed on a sliding scale based on need. Nationally, 11 states have implemented universal pre-K, but Tennessee does not appear prepared to join them, so the issue would require local leadership. 

Similarly, MNPS provides some before- and after-school programs in partnership with nonprofits like the YMCA, Backfield in Motion and the Girl Scouts, but the expansion of those programs and days of the week served would require funding.

In the shorter run, a mayor could continue Cooper’s path of capital investments, though without the benefit of some federal funds the current administration utilized because of COVID-19. Cooper knocked off $397 million from the MNPS Capital Improvement Budget, a list of capital priorities for the district, but that’s less than 10 percent of the $4 billion in needs throughout the district as of the 2020-21 CIB.

Another path might be to focus on intensive programs in areas such as reading or English proficiency. As mentioned, the significant number of English learners in MNPS — largely Spanish speakers, but also Arabic, Swahili, Kurdish and Somali — present the opportunity to make gains in other areas once the language gap is bridged. 

Every mayor says they want to be known as the “Education Mayor,” and there are implications across the board for Nashville if MNPS becomes significantly better. But achieving that title is something few actually have done.

On the record

We asked the eight main mayoral candidates for their positions in three different areas of education:

Multiple studies have shown that investment in early childhood education has some of the highest ROI of any public dollars spent. Would your administration be in favor of funding free, universal pre-K for all of Davidson Co.?

(in alphabetical order)

Heidi Campbell: Absolutely. Research shows that children’s well being is positively associated with early childhood services, inclusive of formal programming such as preschool and kindergarten; this relationship is especially noteworthy among children with economic disadvantages, putting them at greater risk of poor outcomes for long term wellbeing. The Metropolitan Action Commission’s Head Start and Early Head Start Programs of Nashville and Davidson County provide free preschool and pre-k education for financially eligible families with children ages 3-5. These programs currently operate across seven locations, and serve nearly 1,500 children, as the largest providers of early childhood education in our county. As your mayor, I will work with the Metropolitan Action Commission to identify locations and funding to expand the capacity and eligibility requirements of the Head Start and Early Head Start Programs, so that more working and middle class families can benefit. This will not only help alleviate childcare burdens for families, but it will also help enrich our children at a critical age in their development, putting them on a long term path for success. 

Jim Gingrich: Research has shown as little as three months of pre-K instruction targeted toward the highest needs students has significant impact on academic outcomes. There are many parts of Nashville where there are few if any pre-K options for parents. We should be investing more in pre-K, especially our highest need communities which are those traditionally most underserved. While I am in favor of universal pre-K, as a city we will need strong state and federal support. I will be a strong advocate for those dollars.

Sharon Hurt: I absolutely would be in favor. I don’t think there’s anything more important than investing in our children and our future.

Freddie O’Connell:  As mayor, I would work to give our youngest Nashvillians a strong foundation of learning through investing in Head Start and high-quality pre-K. It’s a top priority for me, and I was the only mayoral candidate present for the launch of Raising Readers Nashville, the reinvention of the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success. I intend to strongly support this program.

Mayor Barry had it right: a focus on as many high-quality seats as possible as quickly as possible. I think it’s worth aspiring to universal pre-K, but the research also shows that universal access without quality is not as impactful as a large number of high-quality seats.

While getting our youngest Nashvillians on the path to strong social and emotional development and helping them to become great readers is the best return on investment we can make, the studies you’re referencing are economic, so I want to touch on that too. Pre-K is also an investment in parents – our workforce. Childcare wait times and prices have been going up in Nashville. The years leading up to kindergarten are often a patchwork of care providers and family members and camps – I know it has been for our kids. A lot of families have to take long periods of unpaid leave while hoping for a daycare opening, and more and more are finding it’s less expensive to do that than to pay once they get in. Just like delays or gaps in learning harm our children’s future, the same is true about parent’s career futures. Nashville needs to support working parents, while helping our kids succeed in school. Moving toward guaranteed after care availability for elementary schools is also a top priority of mine that I chronicled in my 15 fixes I’ll initiate on day one as mayor. 

Alice Rolli: Federal state and local funds currently fund the city’s sliding scale payment options for families interested in enrolling in Metro’s Voluntary PreK programs with many families benefiting from free pre-K.

We are in favor of directing budgeted education dollars to their highest and best use and if there are families not able to attend Metro’s pre-K programs based on the current cost structure, evaluating where our taxpayers’ dollars can be re-allocated to ensure that we are always funding education programs that are working, in demand by Nashville parents, and producing results for Nashville’s kids. 

Vivian Wilhoite: Absolutely. My own pre-K experience was HeadStart. It was the necessary high-quality choice for the Black community at that time. I loved it so much that my mother told me that after being there, I would play like I was the teacher. High-quality pre-K education promotes the development of essential cognitive, social, emotional, and physical skills during a critical period of a child’s brain development. Access to high-quality pre-K programs can also help narrow the achievement gap for children with disadvantaged backgrounds. Fully funding pre-K education will also give relief to many Nashville families who are working and struggling to find daycare options for their children. 

Matt Wiltshire: Yes, but I believe we must start even earlier than pre-K. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are critical, yet half of Nashville parents struggle to find high-quality childcare, and our pre-k programs have long waiting lists. As a parent and step parent of six kinds I know what a struggle this can be. This is a workforce issue, and it’s an opportunity to set children up for success on their first day of Kindergarten in MNPS.

With Nashville facing both a childcare and a teacher shortage, I’ll expand on innovative ideas like that of Nashville’s STEM Prep, where they are partnering with Little Wonders Early Learning Center to offer a high quality child care center to both staff and community members on their campus. We should be capitalizing on unused space in our schools and other public facilities that are located in the heart of our communities. 

As Mayor I’d also like to place Head Start Centers, which are under the purview of the Metro Action Commission, on Nashville State campuses across the city. This is under way in several other cities and Nashville could benefit from offering free Head Start programming to children while their parents pursue post-secondary credentials or degrees to expand their workforce options. 

I believe we can do more to braid local, state, federal and private dollars to expand the number of child care and Pre-k seats across the city. This will be an important priority for me as Mayor of Nashville. 

Jeff Yarbro: Nashville needs an overhaul when it comes to early childhood education, which should include both high-quality child care options for the first three years of life when approximately 80% of brain development occurs and a strategy for universal, high-quality pre-K for ages 3-5. Without reliable federal or state investment, I think adding one free year of pre-K is not the highest priority investment given the deficiencies across our early childhood education ecosystem. Even the cities doing the best at universal pre-K have a mixed delivery strategy that includes community-based and home-based providers, as well as public schools. We will achieve greater success with a comprehensive strategy focused first on making high-quality education universally accessible to all and likely a longer pathway towards eliminating cost altogether for pre-K.


Gov. Bill Lee’s vision for public education includes private school vouchers, an increased number of charter schools and a bypass of local control in urban areas like Nashville. What is your position on each of these issues?

Heidi Campbell: Nashville schools have been and always will be a top priority for me as a public servant. The problems many of our students, families, and neighborhoods face are compounded by the fact that our state does not fully fund public education. Tennessee ranks 44th in the country in school funding and we spend about $4,000 dollars less per student than the national average. Under the former BEP formula Nashville public schools were underfunded by an estimated $1B annually, and unfortunately this only got worse when we transitioned to the TISA formula last year. While our city provides over half of the revenue for our state, we receive less than other counties in education funding, particularly if adjusted for cost of living differentials. 

Tuition voucher programs seem great in theory, but the problem that advocates don’t like to focus on is that they deplete financial resources for public education–which ultimately harms more students than it helps. Advocates for voucher programs claim they have increased the number of educational opportunities for families, but evidence suggests school choice benefits the wealthy rather than the economically disadvantaged. There are some good charter schools, and I am not necessarily opposed to the idea of them – however I am opposed to the way we handle funding for charter schools in Tennessee, because it comes directly off the top of our public school budget, draining an already underfunded system. Also, as a state senator I am deeply aware of the controlling party’s overall education strategy, and I know that there is a desire among many in that caucus for public schools to fail. We cannot let that happen. 

The amount of control that the ideologically motivated Tennessee State Legislature and the Governor want to assert over our municipal autonomy threatens real harm to our city. Unfortunately, the supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature almost guarantee that state overreach into Nashville’s affairs will persist, as long as they feel as though they benefit politically – and they’ll continue as long as they underestimate the damage they’re doing. As your mayor, I’ll sound the alarm and join forces with our school board and other elected officials in the region to push back on this unnecessary overreach into our affairs. As a state senator I’ve built working relationships across the state, and across the aisle, and I will continue to look for ways to work constructively with our partners in the state government while we protect and build our future. 

Jim Gingrich: I am a product of traditional public schools and so are my children. I never attended private schools and neither did my children. Nashville ranks at the bottom of large US cities in intergenerational economic mobility, meaning if you’re born poor in Nashville, you’re more likely to remain poor. Investment in education is the key to changing these statistics. We should not play politics, our focus should be first and foremost on our children and their future. Every parent deserves the opportunity to send their child to a great school. Charter schools can be part of that solution and an investment in all of our public schools is one of my greatest priorities.

Sharon Hurt: I’m not in favor of private school vouchers.

I appreciate charter schools being available to meet the urgent needs of our students in public schools but I think we need to ensure they don’t divert money away from our traditional public schools. I believe charter schools and traditional public schools can peacefully coexist.

I absolutely oppose bypassing local control.

Freddie O’Connell:  

I oppose the Education Savings Account approach as well as state authorized charters. If our local school board thinks high-performing charters are working well, I’m willing to acknowledge their preferences, but we seem to have hit a reasonable equilibrium. Fundamentally, bypassing local control has not produced demonstrably better outcomes for students. I’d love for the governor to resolve the state funding formula so that it doesn’t disadvantage urban school districts like Nashville over the next several years.

We are way overdue as a city and a school district in taking necessary steps to ensure that working families can meaningfully choose Metro Schools and have the experience I think all parents envision for their kids. It all goes back to focusing on what matters most to Metro Nashville residents. My girls will be in our public schools when I’m mayor, and having that firsthand, real-time experience will undoubtedly change how our city leads on education.

Alice Rolli: Every family in Nashville deserves to send their child to a school that is funded by their tax dollars and which is succeeding and producing results for literacy and career and college readiness. Directionally, I believe that student-based budgeting, where dollars follow the child to their school building, produces the greatest accountability for strong results and strong support of our teachers and families.

Currently, 37 publicly funded schools in Nashville are rated as Reward Schools and the majority of these schools are magnet or charter schools — where parents are actively making a decision to enroll their children. I support these Nashville families in their desire to send their children to schools — including charter and magnet schools — achieving results and funded by their tax dollars.

ESAs or Vouchers are available to about 1 percent of families in Metro Nashville Public Schools — and generally require that the family has been enrolled in Metro Schools and meets income requirements to access the funds. I support this “last resort” option for families for whom our schools have not been able to serve successfully through traditional zone, magnet, or charter school options.

Vivian Wilhoite: I am not against parental choice. If you want to send your child to private school, you should pay your own way. We need to be fully funding public schools, not diverting taxpayer dollars into the coffers of hedge fund investors and corporations seeking to profit off of Nashville’s children. Fully funding our public schools is essential. 

Matt Wiltshire: I believe that Nashville should have the best public school system in America and that starts with each parent and child having a terrific traditional neighborhood school as an option for them. 

The Governor’s focus on charter school expansion and vouchers are not the right priorities for Nashville, and only serve to pull critical funding from our traditional neighborhood public schools. Instead, the state and the city should find ways to work together to ensure our schools have the resources, staff and facilities to deliver a world class education to every child in Nashville. As Mayor my focus will be on working closely with Dr. Battle and the district to leverage our city’s public and private resources, and our postsecondary institutions, to expand opportunities for every single student in MNPS so that we fulfill their aspirations, and maximize their talents. 

Jeff Yarbro: As a legislator, I have voted against and spoken out against both private school vouchers and the state’s overriding of local decisions through authorizing new charter schools at the state level. The decision to use tax dollars to open new schools should be made locally with an honest assessment of the potential impact on the community. MNPS remains responsible for providing high-quality schools to any student across a 528 square mile area — we can’t just close a 300-student neighborhood school when 300 kids from across the county use a voucher. I appreciate committed educators wherever they teach and as Mayor would support children and celebrate their successes wherever we find them. But I do believe the constant education fights exacerbated by state policy have made public education harder. The next Mayor must find a way to ensure robust funding, stable instructional leadership, and a coherent citywide vision for education despite these complications.


Statewide, English learners in Tennessee schools make up 8 percent of students. In MNPS, that number is 27 percent. What can your administration do to help close the language gap for those students?

Heidi Campbell: As a historically redlined city, Nashville’s public school system continues to be plagued by inequity. In recent years, Metro Nashville Public Schools raised academic achievement standards, but progress has not been even across all parts of town. Overall, MNPS achieved a level five district status in the 2021-2022 school year in the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, which measures academic growth of students. However the number of priority schools in the district–those performing in the bottom 5% of schools in the state–increased from 16 to 19. The 2022 TNReady scores released last summer show that just under half of white students in grades three to eight are reading on grade level – but even worse, fewer than one in five black and hispanic students, and only one in seven economically disadvantaged students, are reading at the level they should be. That’s an enormous difference. 

Closing the achievement gap is an all-hands-on-deck emergency. Every child in Davidson County deserves access to a high quality public education, regardless of where they live, the color of their skin, or how much money their parents earn. In the 2021 fall semester, MNPS introduced the Accelerating Scholars program to provide one-on-one and small group tutoring services in literacy and math, and many EL students have enrolled in addition to their existing EL support programming within MNPS. Accelerating Scholars touts high-dosage tutoring as a transformative educational intervention tool with proven, positive student outcomes – both academically, and in social-emotional learning. Through paid and volunteer tutoring positions, and by recruiting through the non-profit organization PENCIL and Vanderbilt University’s Tutor Nashville, the Accelerating Scholars program has served more than 7,000 students thus far. As your mayor, I will support MNPS and our community partners to build on the early success of the Accelerating Scholars program. MNPS is committed to serving our more than 18,000 EL students, and as your mayor, I will work with MNPS and community partners to identify and improve inequities, and to expand strategic community support services for our students, families, and neighborhoods.

Jim Gingrich: To train the workforce we need for the 21st century, strong English proficiency is a must.  I support not only meaningful investments in our ESL students but also working with the nonprofit, religious, and business community to ensure that students have opportunity to become proficient both inside and outside the classroom.

Sharon Hurt: We need to invest in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in primary schools. This will help prepare immigrant and refugee students for success. Such a program will be one of the cornerstones of my Mayor’s reading initiative. The goal of this initiative will be to have all Metro students reading at grade-level by first-grade. I also really like the current program we have where our multilingual public school students can volunteer to translate for our English-learning students. I love this peer-to-peer concept. Finally, I want to make sure our school documents are available in all the many languages of Nashville. Parents should be able to know what is going on with their child’s education. 

Freddie O’Connell:  English-language learners deserve the same opportunities to succeed that other students experience, and that equity requires investment. We should invest in educators that speak multiple languages, or want to learn. We should invest in textbooks and learning resources that offer multiple language options. And we need to invest in parents and families, providing them materials in multiple languages so they can help their students at home too. The Metro Schools L.E.A.F. program is a good example of this.

But success is also about making sure these students feel seen. Our daughters have gotten to participate in an annual international potluck at Eakin that celebrates the many languages and cultures present in the school community, and we should look to find opportunities to celebrate every school’s diversity in this way. I want our libraries to invest in programs like Project LIT that are as diverse as our residents so the learning can go on year round. As a parent at an International Baccalaureate school, I wish our younger daughter had the world language teacher she’s supposed to have. We may have beaten English Only and taken steps to be inclusive, but we can still do better at making multi-lingual youth feel welcome and showing them that their language skills are something to celebrate. 

Alice Rolli: In 2021-22 18 of the district’s salutatorians and valedictorians received services through the MNPS Office of English Learners. This is a great reminder that with supports for families, students, and teachers we can create successful outcomes for all students. Programs such as Communities in Schools and Conexión Américas Parents as Partners program should continue to be supported and, where possible, scaled. We should look at all schools in the district — whether charter, zone, or magnet — to take best practices that are achieving strong outcomes and ensure that we are emulating those best practices district-wide.

Finally, we should continue to advocate for additional funding for our students. The state’s new funding formula has surprised many education leaders in how the promise of increased dollars for harder-to-serve populations has not materialized at the rates explained. We are supportive of working together with other districts to advocate for increased funding for EL students to ensure dollars are following the specific needs of children in Tennessee.

Vivian Wilhoite: As Mayor, fully funding our public education system is a mandatory prerequisite to fully equipping Director Battle with the tools for our students to achieve and excel.  Fully funding our public education system is the start that helps to reduce the statewide percentage on one such issue of closing the language gap. I would also use my voice to encourage Gov Lee to do more statewide. 

Matt Wiltshire: I’d like to reframe the question. There are more than 140 languages spoken in the homes of MNPS students. That cultural diversity adds character and richness to our community. Data tells us year over year that our teachers in MNPS are serving our English Learners well. In fact, they often outperform native-born students once they exit English Learner programs and move into traditional classrooms.They personify the American dream in many ways. 

I believe as Mayor we can leverage our city’s resources and Metro departments to ensure our New American families have what they need to help their children succeed. Their dreams for their children are the same as mine and yours. We can work with community organizations to identify the gaps in tools and information that families need to fully engage in their child’s education, and in their healthy development and growth. This can include expanding access to translated information on services and programs across our Metro agencies, hiring more interpreters and bilingual staff, and creating opportunities for parents and families to be integrated into their schools and communities in meaningful ways. The fact is that English Learners are not a monolith and they are as diverse as the communities they represent and I want to make sure we are working in partnership with the district and community organizations to really listen to families and students about their needs.

Jeff Yarbro: Most critically, the Mayor must ensure sufficient resources to support ELL despite historic underfunding on the state level. Especially in a time of teacher shortages, the Mayor should be a strategic partner in the recruitment and retention of ELL instructors. From the Mayor’s office, I would also promote a number of community initiatives supporting English literacy. First, across the board, Metro needs to be better at communicating with residents in their native language. Second, using trusted communication channels, we should empower those providing home- or community-based child care with targeted resources to ensure more students arrive for kindergarten with the building blocks to read. Third, I would promote an initiative with Nashville Public Library to develop more extensive native-language programming, as well as English language resources targeted culturally to Nashville’s larger ELL populations. Finally, both I and my administration would maintain relationships with our immigrant and refugee populations so that we will be in a position to listen to their concerns and implement their ideas where feasible.

Disclosure: Matt Wiltshire has donated to the Nashville Banner. Financial supporters play no role in the Banner’s journalism.

Steve is a three-decade veteran of newspapers, working around the country at places like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune before returning home to Nashville in 2011 to edit The City Paper and Nashville...