Education initiatives that ranged from boosting teacher salaries to driving down high school dropout rates dominated much of Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s State of the State Address to lawmakers in Nashville last week. The Democratic governor, who is in the final year of his first term and gearing up for a re-election bid, pledged increased education spending amid the state’s still tight, but improving, fiscal condition.
Among his new spending proposals for schools, the governor wants to add $90 million over last year’s amount for the state’s K-12 basic education program.
He would also add $20 million to expand Tennessee’s voluntary prekindergarten program to pay for an additional 5,000 4-year-olds, bringing the total number of participants to 14,000.
Read a complete transcript of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s 2006 State of the State Address. Posted by Tennessee’s Office of the Governor.
His budget also calls for $20 million in new spending for low-income students and English-language learners. There is now one teacher in the state for every 50 English-learners, and one translator for every 500. Those funds would help lower those ratios slightly.
“Education for me is our fundamental priority,” Gov. Bredesen said in the Feb. 7 speech. “It is a big and complex subject,” he added. “It is easy to get distracted, but I want us to stay focused on the most important things.”
The governor said his new education spending—6 percent above the current $3.1 billion K-12 budget—accounts for more than one-third of all new allocations in his proposed $26 billion state budget for fiscal 2007, which begins July 1.
‘Very Ambitious Goal’
Gov. Bredesen’s most ambitious education initiative was his proposal to raise high school graduation rates in Tennessee to 90 percent by 2012, but he offered no road map for achieving that figure. The state’s high school graduation rate stands at 77.9 percent.
Gov. Bredesen also called for boosting college-graduation rates from 42 percent to 55 percent over the same time frame and challenged the state’s higher education leaders to come up with ideas to achieve that goal.
An official with Tennessee’s largest teachers’ union said boosting high school graduation to the governor’s stated goal in six years would be tough, but otherwise praised his education plans.
“It’s a very ambitious goal, but certainly a laudable one,” said Jerry Winters, the director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
He was also mixed on the governor’s proposal to raise teacher pay.
Mr. Winters, whose union represents 51,000 teachers across Tennessee, called Gov. Bredesen’s pledge of $42 million to boost teacher salaries modest, but important.
“That equates to about a 2 percent salary increase,” Mr. Winters said. “But it represents that this governor recognizes the importance of valuing our teachers even when times are tight.”
Mr. Winters said Tennessee’s teacher salaries “fall somewhere in the middle” compared with salaries in other states. In 2004, Tennessee teachers earned an average of $40,318, compared with the national average of $46,597.
Gov. Bredesen also highlighted the importance of providing substantial professional-development opportunities for teachers, saying, “If we train and recruit and keep and support great teachers, our kids will do fine. If we fail to do this, we can test kids every day and stack computers one on top of another, and we’ll still come up short.”
In his budget proposal, Gov. Bredesen pledged $1 million toward establishing a competitive mathematics and science high school in the state.
Gov. Bredesen also highlighted health-care issues in his address, proposing a new health-insurance program for 150,000 Tennessee children who are uninsured.
He told lawmakers that he will continue to look for ways to find balance between demands for funding education and TennCare, the state’s $7.5 billion health-insurance program for the poor. The governor has been criticized for taking 190,000 residents off of the program last year in an effort to control spiraling costs.