Nashville is booming and employers from around the country want to be here. In order to be a successful city, we must be a well-educated city. Education is key to sustainable growth that benefits the whole community. Metro Government has invested heavily in downtown development in recent years, yet has lost its focus on the city’s essential responsibilities. Metro Nashville Public Schools has been under-resourced for too long while downtown has a surplus. For the past two years the money going towards public schools has represented just under 40% of Metro’s general operating budget. 

The lack of prioritization of schools has led to troubling outcomes for many students. The number of schools in the bottom five percent statewide has increased to 21.  Only 27.4 percent of MNPS students were on track to meet grade level standards last year. Additionally, only 13.8% of economically disadvantaged students met literacy benchmarks in 2018. Due to generations of underinvestment in certain neighborhoods, low-income students and students of color are frequently left behind in our current system; in some neighborhoods, students move from a low-performing elementary school to a low-performing middle-school and into a low-performing high school. And we need to keep taking steps to address chronic absenteeism. Approximately 18% of MNPS students missed at least 10% of school days last year. And despite an estimated 60% of jobs in Nashville requiring a postsecondary degree or certificate, only 24% of recent MNPS graduates complete a degree within six years of graduation. 

Despite the challenges, there is much to celebrate about our school system. Here are just a few examples. The Academies of Nashville have long been seen as a national model for career and technical education in high schools, and are often credited for improving high school graduation rates. One example I like to highlight is the solar farm project at Whites Creek High School. Over 375 businesses are connected to high schools through the Academies program. Additionally, the wrap-around support of the Community Achieves program is helping improve student and community outcomes. Another recent success is that MNPS secured a $13.4 million federal grant to provide targeted services to increase enrollment and retention in postsecondary programs for students from ten high-poverty schools. 

I am running for Mayor to ensure that all of Nashville’s residents and neighborhoods are able to benefit from our city’s growth. This requires investment in human capital.

As mayor, I will: 

Secure Resources for Public Schools
Our biggest challenge as a city is making schools our top priority. My business background makes me uniquely situated to take on this challenge. As a council member, I created the Blue Ribbon Commission to identify $20 million in savings for Metro Government. This is money that can be used to invest in schools. As mayor, I will continue to exact the same scrutiny on the budget to ensure that our schools have the resources they need to succeed. I will join the voices of those advocating at the state level for revisions to the BEP formula to better account for the needs of urban districts and secure more funding for our schools. Financial management and finding other revenues from tourism and development is the mechanism through which we will find additional funding for education. See more in my Fiscal Accountability policy statement. 

Invest in Human Capital 
Nashville has devoted just under 40% of our budget to schools in the last two years. As mayor, I will prioritize investments in human capital through education in order to ensure that everyone benefits from Nashville’s growth by increasing the percentage share of our budget that goes to education. As mayor, I will commit to directing over half of new revenue into our school system. 

Use Mayor’s Office to Set Tone and Expectations
All students have the right to high quality education. As mayor, I will support current school leadership and help the school board recruit a great candidate for Director of Schools. I will prioritize having a strong working relationship with the council in order to bring the focus back to students. I will demand that district leadership and school board are aligned and focused on improving student outcomes, will set measurable and achievable goals for improvement, and will hold accountable to the goals that we set. Because all students from all neighborhoods need to have access to high-quality educational experiences, I will be especially focused on reducing equity gaps in student outcomes. It isn’t enough to be the fastest improving urban district if there are students who are left behind. As mayor, I will expect that our schools get great results for all kids and will celebrate the achievements of those that do.

Teachers are the Developers We Need to Support
I frequently say that teachers are the real developers that we need to support. Educators deserve to be treated as the professionals they are; these are the individuals who are preparing our kids for the future. They are not currently valued as they should be, and teacher recruitment and retention has suffered as a result. Over half of teachers who leave the district are within their first three years of teaching. The increased cost of living in Nashville has made it difficult for many educators to afford to live in the county. Most teachers ended up with lower take-home pay last year because of rising health insurance premiums. This is a problem. Wage stagnation makes it hard to sustain a career in teaching; it shouldn’t take 18 years of teaching in MNPS with a Master’s degree to reach $60,000 per year. As mayor, I am committed to finding mechanisms to not simply provide one-time raises for teachers but also finding a longer-term, sustainable vision for teacher salaries that provide the opportunity for more growth over time. 

Connect Schools with their Communities
Research shows that teachers are the most important factor that affects student learning inside of schools, but non-school factors have a greater impact on student achievement outcomes.  Over half of MNPS students are economically disadvantaged, and many students have been affected by challenges such as trauma, violence, and food or housing insecurity. Basic needs need to be met in order for students to meet their full potential. The district and non-profit partners such as STARS, the Oasis Center and the Martha O’Bryan Center have been working hard to support successful student outcomes. I am a supporter of collective impact programs like Community Achieves, which has brought community partners into 22 MNPS schools to focus on improving family engagement, college and career readiness, health, and social services. I see it as part of my role as mayor to convene and connect community resources to the schools so that students receive the support needed to succeed in an intentional and systematic way. 

These are some of my ideas for how I can best serve students as mayor. I invite you to share what you’d like to see moving forward so we can continue this discussion. I realize that it is not enough to say that we believe in the power of education; we must make the investments in human capital to ensure that all students can make the lives they want and fully participate in our city. Nashville’s future depends on the quality of education we provide to our students today. With your help and support, Nashville’s schools will work for everyone.

John Cooper