(Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Gov. Bill Haslam said his new education initiative to provide two free years of tuition and fees to graduating seniors at Tennessee’s community colleges and technical schools would be “a game-changer for the state.”
Announced Monday during his State of the State Address, Haslam said the free education offer, which he called the Tennessee Promise, would play a major part in the goal he set last year to have 55 percent of the state’s residents earn a professional certificate or degree beyond high school by the year 2025.
“We’re saying to every Tennesseean, if you graduate from high school, we will promise you two years of community college or technology college totally free of tuition and fees,” Haslam said Tuesday during a meeting of the Johnson City Press’ editorial board. “We think that’s a bold promise for the state.”
To pay for the hefty higher education initiative, Haslam proposed taking $300 million from the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship reserve fund to create an endowment earmarked for funding the promise.
His plan would also change the current Hope scholarship awards from $2,000 per year for two-year degree students and $4,000 for four-year students to $3,000 per year for the first two years regardless of the degree track and $5,000 for the third and fourth years.
By back-loading the funding opportunities, Haslam said the scholarship changes would help with cash flow and would provide students with an incentive to finish their degrees.
Matt DeLozier, Vice President for Student Affairs at Northeast State Community College, said the school will be expecting an increase in enrollment if the Tennessee Promise is enacted, but it’s difficult to pinpoint how many new students will take advantage of the program.
“I don’t think anyone knows what we can expect from this, in terms of enrollment,” DeLozier said. “But I can’t help but think enrollments will increase as part of this initiative.”
The free schooling, paired with a reverse transfer program announced last month by the state’s major universities and community colleges, should help bolster the number of degrees to help reach the governor’s 55-percent goal.
Through the reverse transfer program, students who partially complete a two-year degree before transferring to a four-year college will still receive associate degrees during their pursuit of bachelor’s degrees.
Haslam also defended the state’s recent efforts to reform K-12 education through the implementation of Common Core State Standards and a heavier reliance on standardized testing data.
Despite opposition from some teachers and state legislators, the governor said that it’s apparent that the grade-level education changes are working in a state that is making significant gains in college and workforce preparedness.
He said those in the state opposing the use of Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS scores, in teacher evaluations have been using scare tactics to demonize the statistics and portray the calculations in an unfair light.
“My question to some teachers would be, ‘What would you like to use instead?’” he asked. “Because I don’t think we want to go back to the days when we had no evaluations at all, when a tenured teacher got evaluated every five to 10 years.”
A move in August by the state Board of Education to link the granting and renewal of teacher licences to growth scores calculated using the TVAAS data was met with a forceful push back from state legislators, some of whom submitted bills to reverse the policy when the General Assembly reconvened in January.
The state board reversed the maligned policy last week, but Jonesborough Rep. Matthew Hill said he still intends to pursue his bill barring any similar rules in the future.
Haslam said he’s also still supporting the state Department of Education’s gradual implementation of Common Core and the accompanying Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, testing.
“It’s not about test scores, it’s not about rankings, it’s about making sure that our children and grandchildren have the right opportunity,” he said. “Historically, we’ve set that bar too low.”