Tennessee Should Be Proud of its Promise

Frank Daniels III, The Tennessean

I imagine that some days Gov. Bill Haslam, who has the financial security to forego his pay, has to wonder, “Now, why did I want to be governor?”

Like the soon-to-be-former Speaker of the House John Boehner, Haslam’s wonderment is most often spurred by “friends” in his own party who have regularly dissed the governor’s plans to improve education, increase access to health insurance and provide funding for highway construction.

When those friends go home at the ends of their term they will regale their families with tales of stuff that didn’t get done. Riveting stories for their grandchildren I am sure.

Gov. Haslam, on the other hand, has given the state what should be considered one of the most heartening plans to change the future for Tennesseans in recent history — Tennessee Promise. (To be fair, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the plan.)

I have enjoyed reading education reporter Adam Tamburin’s stories of the rollout of this ambitious idea, which put more than 15,000 students into the state’s colleges this fall — tuition free.

Changing futures

“It’s a dream come true for me,” said Kris Tugman, a freshman at Nashville State Community College who is there only because of the Tennessee Promise plan. “Him doing that for me, he’s opened up a whole sea of opportunities.”

The governor is fond of his statistics and peppers speeches and conversations with citations bolstering his arguments. They are the impetus behind his “Drive to 55” initiatives — to have 55 percent of Tennesseans holding a college degree or advanced academic certification by the 2025. Today only 32 percent of Tennessee’s adults have degrees beyond high school.

“We don’t want to be a state that has two different populations, one that has education and opportunity and income gain, and one that doesn’t,” Haslam says.

“This is a moral challenge. It is important for us to say we won’t accept a percentage of population that gets left behind.”

Haslam frames his moral challenge in the language of the businessman he is, saying that without an educated population, companies and industries will turn their backs on Tennessee.

Economic development plan

The Drive to 55 brand signifies that by 2025 an estimated 55 percent of jobs will require education beyond high school, and without extraordinary effort Tennessee will be woefully short — with nearly 500,000 residents not having the education to get an interview, much less a job.

Those without advanced education are more likely to be unemployed, the governor frequently notes, and, obviously, more likely to make less money.

“There’s a big discussion going on in the country right now about income inequality. And regardless of where you are in the political spectrum, that’s real,” Haslam told The Tennessean. “If you’ve grown up in a family that can afford going to school past high school, and where other people have done that, then you’re prepared for a world that’s more challenging. If you haven’t, it’s really hard out there.”

Haslam announced his idea in February 2014: “Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors.”

To fund his idea, the governor created a trust fund using the surplus in the education lottery accounts and shifted how Hope scholarships would be allocated, earmarking more money for the first two years of college and making those scholarships available to community college students.

The state’s four-year institutions were, understandably, unhappy to see the tuition support changes, but most seem to have adapted.

Hot idea

The governor’s concept became a political darling.

President Barack Obama flew to Tennessee to announce his plans to copy the governor and make community colleges tuition-free to all high school graduates. That was too much success too soon, and from the wrong place.

The president adopted the idea, but not the plan — the trust fund, the commitment of adviser support, and the other supplementary details that make Tennessee Promise a great example of the way our government can work smart.

The governor also has not just put a plan out there to fend for itself; he has acknowledged the flaws in the current iteration and is working to make the process easier, to find ways to deal with costs not covered by the initial plan, and to better educate students on how to apply.

We regularly complain about our government not working, but we should recognize it when government does.

Reach Frank Daniels III: 615-881-7039, or on Twitter @fdanielsiii

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