After eight years as governor, Bill Haslam was able to claim Tennessee’s title as the “fastest improving state in the nation” in terms of academic achievement. Tennessee also had its highest graduation rate, highest ACT scores, and largest increases in enrollment in vocational and technical education in state history.
We had a new high ACT score (20.2) coupled with a new high participation rate (97%); more students took AP exams. Haslam pointed to growth in students’ literacy skills in the early grades — with success with the Read to Be Ready effort. Tennessee was the first state in the nation to offer high school graduates and adults two years of community or technical college with no tuition or mandatory fees.
How have we capitalized on this progress? To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the question every Tennessean must answer: Are we better off today than four years ago?
Compare the differences in literacy for a moment. Low literacy is strongly linked to crime. Low literacy is strongly linked to unemployment. Illiteracy and delinquency are closely linked. The Ministry of Justice states: “The link between failure in school and delinquency, violence and crime is linked to failure in reading. More than 70% of inmates in US prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. Reading is the key to academic success.
Governor Haslam acknowledged the reading problems facing the state. In 2016, he launched Read to Be Ready, a strategy that tackled literacy from multiple angles, including phonics. This included strengthening the training our teachers receive, expanding community partnerships to provide support to students and families after school and during the summer, as well as preparing our youngest students with skills in early literacy before they even enter the classroom. It took time for teachers to find or create materials.
Governor Bill Lee ditched the Read to Be Ready program and started his Reading 360 initiative. To be fair, there are similarities between the two programs. Much of the criticism has focused on raising the price and choosing preferred suppliers for state contracts. The timing of the textbook adoption process, excessive authority and previous relationships with selected partners were denounced by many.
One provider in particular, The New Teacher Project, linked to Penny Schwinn, Governor Lee’s education commissioner, received millions of dollars. The Tennessee Department of Education had partnered with the TNTP for literacy as early as 2016.
In 2018, his final year in office, Bill Haslam proposed a $37.5 billion budget, which he said focused on jobs, education and “effective and efficient government.” This year, Governor Lee presented a $52.6 billion budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, which will focus on “freedom, innovation, exceptionalism and optimism.” This is an increase from the budget of $41.8 billion in 2021. Policymakers need to consider whether state government spending can continue on this trajectory and maintain its core responsibilities in the future.
The largest appropriation in the state budget is K-12 education, which has accounted for 27% to 30% of all state spending over the past decade. Spending is lagging behind other states. In 2016, Haslam championed his plan to update the basic education curriculum. Governor Lee is now trying to change the public education funding formula over 30 years. Many schools or districts are wondering if they will get more funding for all students under a new formula. Governor Lee said his education funding proposal is not tied to school vouchers.
In 2012, Haslam openly questioned what kind of return on investment the investment bonds would give in terms of academic achievement. He said: “In other words, all the money transferred with this child is enough to provide education, but does not destroy the existing school system. I think finding the right balance will be the biggest challenge. Haslam tried to adapt a statewide voucher scheme – Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act – to target students from failing schools. The plan was ultimately not passed by the legislature.
In his first year in office, Lee pushed a voucher bill by a narrow margin. His college savings accounts could be used to pay for private school tuition or other approved education expenses that have so far been ruled unconstitutional. The Tennessee Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal on whether the law violated the home rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution since the program only applied to Shelby and Davidson counties.
Lee also recruited Hillsdale College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Michigan, to the state to start “classic charter schools” across the state. While Hillsdale has a solid reputation, it was notorious for not taking government funds. This apparently blurs that line. It seems unfair to use government control and tighten regulations on public education, then recruit an out-of-state institution to compete with the public schools and other charter schools already in Tennessee. There is currently increased cynicism and trust issues around the proposed changes to the school funding formula. Nevertheless, the current formula needs to be modernized and we support its update. However, it needs to be implemented properly, addressing many concerns raised by stakeholders.
Education stakeholders and policy makers need to ask themselves: “Are we preparing students better today to succeed in and out of the classroom than four years ago? » You decide.
JC Bowman is executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a nonpartisan teachers’ association headquartered in Nashville.