NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday night that his budget proposal seeks to enhance education performance in Tennessee with more than $300 million for improvements on the campuses of the state's colleges and universities, as well as funding for higher teacher salaries.
In the Republican governor's third State of the State address to lawmakers, improvements to colleges and universities topped the proposed capital outlay for next year at a little over $307 million.
The proposal also includes $35.5 million to reward higher education institutions that improve graduation rates, $18.6 million to increase higher education salaries and $16.5 million to improve the state's technology centers, which are graduating nearly 79 percent of their students.
Haslam noted the enhancements are necessary because "only 32 percent of Tennesseans have earned an associate degree or higher."
"That's not good enough," he said. "Our goal is to move the needle so that Tennessee is on track to raise that number to 55 percent by 2025."
A portion of the education funding will go toward the fulfillment of the Complete College Act of 2010 that changed the formula for how Tennessee's universities are funded, rewarding them for graduating students, not just enrolling them.
Because the state is fully funding the formula, Haslam said the University of Tennessee and Board of Regents systems have pledged to limit tuition increases to no more than 6 percent at four-year schools and 3 percent at two-year schools.
Rich Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education commission, said the proposed funding — particularly for maintenance — is "very much appreciated."
"Maintaining ... the existing facilities we have and keeping them fully operative, and then new construction that supports new programs is just essential," said Rhoda, who has been THEC's executive director since 1998.
While providing for higher education institutions is important, Haslam said he's not neglecting local schools.
The governor is proposing $51 million to assist locals in paying for technology transition upgrades in schools, $35 million to increase teacher salaries, and $34 million to address capital needs that can be used for increased security measures in the aftermath of last month's massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. where a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults.
"Some have said that this administration and General Assembly aren't committed to public education, but that could not be further from the truth," said Haslam, who was to participate in a school safety summit on Tuesday with other state officials.
During his speech, Haslam also formally introduced his proposal to create a limited school voucher program in Tennessee to allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools.
According to legislation filed in the Senate on Monday, the program — which backers are calling the "opportunity scholarship program" — would be limited to 5,000 students in the school year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 by 2016.
Democrats issued a statement before the speech to criticize the plan, and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley reiterated his concern after the governor's speech.
"I just hate to see when we really don't fund education as we should, we start taking some of that small pot of money from our public schools and giving it directly to private schools and private industry," he said. "I'm not convinced how that's really going to be effective."
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis agreed.
"Everyone is for a school of choice," he said. "But ... what size voucher, who gets it, impact on public education? The devil is more in the details on vouchers than almost any topic we discussed tonight."