Gov. Bill Haslam touts education gains, says Drive to 55 two years ahead of pace

Gov. Bill Haslam plans to seal his legacy on education through his final budget, boosting teacher pay and placing more money into higher education.

Meanwhile, the governor in his final State of the State address on Monday said that Tennessee’s efforts to get more adults earning college degrees is paying off.

“Our goal of 55 percent of Tennesseans having a certificate or degree by 2025 will happen,” Haslam said. “In fact, if we sustain our current momentum, we are on pace to meet the Drive to 55 goal two years early.”

In K-12 education, Haslam set aside a projected $55.1 million for teacher salary increases in his 2018-19 budget proposal. The money will add to the more than $430 million in recurring funds approved for teacher salaries since he entered office in 2011.

Haslam seeks to add $99 million in new state funding for higher education, including $37 million for salaries.

The K-12 and higher education funds represent the largest overall focus in his proposed budget as he prepares for his final year in office.

“This evening, I am proposing a bold new challenge,” Haslam said. “I want Tennessee to lead the nation in jobs, education and government efficiency. I don’t just want us to compete. I want us to be the best.”

If his spending plan is approved this year, Haslam will have increased money for the state’s education funding formula by over $1 billion.

His speech touted raising school standards, installing teacher evaluations and lowering the number of students leaving public schools needing remedial work.

“Why haven’t other states had the same growth? Every other state has compromised on core principals that prove to make a difference,” he said.

He asked Tennessee lawmakers to continue that progress with an uncompromising stance on bettering education into the future.

“Stand with me. Don’t back down,” Haslam said. “Not now, not next year, not ever.”

In higher education, Haslam also said some of his landmark policies have produced positives across the state, namely Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect. The programs offer recent Tennessee high school graduates and adults the ability to receive free college tuition.

The state will turn its eye toward college completion in his budget, he said, even as more Tennesseans are earning degrees.

He asked Tennessee lawmakers to continue that progress with an uncompromising stance on bettering education into the future.

Teacher pay again gets a focus

Haslam has placed a heavy focus on teacher pay in the last several years.

“Since becoming commissioner in 2015-16, we have made annual investments in teacher salaries that total more than $350 million,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said.

It’s unclear how far the money will go toward raising salaries across the state. And the investment in the teacher salary bucket doesn’t carry the same splash as in previous years when he proposed far more annually for pay raises.

Tennessee’s K-12 education budget is proposed to rise to $5.1 billion in state money in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The governor is proposing an overall $37.5 billion budget for the fiscal year.

“This year’s budget proposal again reflects Gov. Haslam’s commitment to K-12 education, with more than $210 million designated for education, which would be the largest area for new investments this year,” McQueen said

Education leaders celebrate Haslam’s focus

Education leaders applauded Haslam’s stance on education.

Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents executive director, said Haslam will leave having bettered Tennessee education as a whole.

“His proposed budget will again continue to allow us to move forward as a state,” Lynch said. “I thank him for his commitment and realizing that the most important piece of a student’s education is a strong teacher in the classroom.”

The state’s two teacher unions also applauded Haslam’s work over the years.

“During his tenure as governor, Bill Haslam has established a new commitment to public education in Tennessee,” JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, said in a statement. “We have disagreed on the importance of priorities from time to time, but never his unwavering commitment to public schools.”

A statement from the Tennessee Education Association praised the governor’s commitment to teacher salaries. But TEA President Barbara Gray said Haslam’s budget does not do as much as it can to support Tennessee’s achievements.

“We’re hopeful that as the state economy keeps revenues strong and well above estimates, the state raise for teachers will increase in the final version of the budget,” Gray said in a statement.

“Its time Tennessee is competitive with our neighboring states on teacher salaries.”

Money outlines following fiscal year’s K-12 work

The state also plans for $10 million in one-time funding solely dedicated to grants that are required through new federal education law to improve the state’s “priority schools,” or the bottom 5 percent of all schools in the state academically.

“The governor’s budget builds on our priority areas and what we know works, particularly in helping our youngest students learn to read, in ensuring every school is led by an excellent principal, and in funding for grants for our highest-need schools,” McQueen said.

One-time funding for the state’s reading initiative, Read to be Ready, and previously promised charter school facilities grant money will again have made their way into the budget. The governor plans to spend $4.4 million and $8 million, respectively, on the two programs.

The state will also invest $1.75 million into principal leadership. Tennessee’s education department hopes to use the money to support principal recruitment and development statewide.

And $1.5 million is set aside for the Teach for America program to get teachers into low-income communities in the state.

Reach Jason Gonzales at [email protected] and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.

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