Tennessee Promise: Funding the dream

Sandra Clark

At a recent P-16 meeting in Union County, Tom Heemstra asked a provocative question:

“What’s the headline for our high school in the spring of 2015?”

My answer was quick: “All UCHS grads head for college.”

Just weeks later, Gov. Bill Haslam proposed a plan to make that headline possible.

With “Tennessee Promise,” Haslam proposes free community and technology college education to every graduating senior. Not since Gov. Frank Clement championed free textbooks, has a governor spoken so boldly or dreamed so big. And Haslam isn’t even asking for a tax increase to fund it.

Instead, Haslam is seeking legislative approval to take three-quarters of the state’s lottery reserves (some $300 million) to create an endowment to fund the program, estimated to cost $34 million per year.

Knox entrepreneur Randy Boyd worked as an unpaid advisor to Haslam in developing the plan. It’s a winner.

We’ve all seen kids, most often in rural or inner city communities, whose vision is limited to what’s around them. College and a solid, middle-class lifestyle is for some other kid, not them.

Haslam aims to refocus that vision:

“After graduating from a community college, if students choose to attend a four-year school, the state’s transfer pathways program makes it possible for those students to start as a junior. By getting their first two years free, the cost of a four-year degree would be cut in half,” Haslam said.

This will aid in business recruitment, he added. “It will speak volumes to current and prospective employers.

“It is a promise that will make a real difference for generations of Tennesseans, and it is a promise that we have the ability to make.

“Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless.”

Skeptics surfaced: But what about freshmen classes at 4-year schools like UT?

Don’t worry. Those seats will be filled.

What about the lottery-funded Hope scholarships?

Haslam wants to “incentivize completion” by reducing the scholarship at 4-year schools from $4,000 to $3,000 the first two years and raising it to $5,000 for the last two years.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) was upset.

In The Tennessean, reporter Chas Sisk quoted Cohen saying the program would “raid funds from the (lottery) surplus” to create a program that would discourage enrollment at the state’s top universities.

As a state senator, Cohen sponsored the 2002 constitutional amendment that repealed the state’s ban on lotteries. He worked hard to repeal the ban, which ironically most Republicans including this writer vigorously opposed.

Cohen said the Hope scholarship program has been “an unparalleled success,” and the governor should use the lottery surplus to increase scholarships for all four-year students.

Even with revenues down, Haslam’s budget also proposes $63 million to increase teacher salaries and $48.6 million to fully fund the BEP. Kids at Union County High School and across the state will no longer view a college education as a pathway to a good job for everybody but them. With Tennessee Promise, the dream is funded, at least for the first two years.

Each youngster should graduate from high school ready to attend college or a technical school. Each must start high school with that goal.

Each legislator should support Bill Haslam’s plan to fund those first two years.

No longer can lack of funds excuse dropping out. And we’ve got a barrel of ink standing by to print that headline.

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