Despite making significant strides in the past several decades, Southerners remain concerned about the quality of education in their states, according to a recent report by a network of Southern state-based organizations called the Columbia Group.
The report, "Accelerating the Pace: The Future of Education in the American South," found that student achievement has improved significantly, but overall achievement gaps have widened in some states, especially between affluent and white students and their low-income or minority peers.
"If schools do not help more students catch up more quickly — even as they raise expectations for all children — the region's economic prospects will worsen," the report states. "In some areas, they already have."
Commissioned by groups including the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) and the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, the report includes the first Education Poll of the South. Conducted last fall in 11 states across the Southeast, it surveyed more than 2,000 voters on their thoughts and priorities regarding education.
Respondents rated "improving K-12 public education" and "improving the economy and creating jobs" as the top two priorities they want state and local elected officials to address.
This comes as no surprise in Tennessee. Last month, SCORE released results from a statewide survey of more than 1,000 Tennessee voters that identified education as their top issue when voting for the next governor.
"SCORE regularly conducts surveys about voter views on education issues, and it is clear from the latest results that Tennessee voters understand the importance of public education, especially as providing a foundation for success after high school," SCORE President David Mansouri said in a statement. "Voters also are eager to hear candidates for governor talk about the policies they favor for improving education in Tennessee."
As far as education across the South, the Columbia Group's report highlighted some significant improvements in Tennessee, including Gov. Bill Haslam's 2017 bill that provides free community college and technical school tuition for all through the Tennessee Promise program and a new rating system of teacher-preparation programs, first released in 2017.
However, not all changes have been positive. Achievement gaps have widened in many states in the region, according to data from 2005 and 2015.
Though Tennessee students are performing better on fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math assessments according to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, white students still outperform their black and Hispanic peers.
The number of students testing at or above proficient levels in fourth-grade math increased by 18 percentage points for non-low-income students in the past decade, five points higher than the 13 percentage point increase in low-income students.
In Georgia, gaps in math proficiency narrowed in the past decade, but in 2015, 47 percent of white fourth-graders tested at or above grade level, whereas only 19 percent of black students and 28 percent of Hispanic students did.
Alabama saw similar trends, with gaps widening for minority and low-income students in both fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math assessments.
"Our state has made significant improvements in education over the last few decades, but the pace of our progress isn't enough to provide every child with an excellent education," Georgia Partnership President Steve Dolinger said in a statement. "I encourage all thought leaders and policymakers to use this report and accompanying poll results to make needed changes so all students in Georgia are receiving the education they deserve, and the education they need to ensure a future workforce that keeps our state the best in which to do business."
Southern voters are aware of these achievement differences and believe they should be addressed, according to poll results.
The majority — 85 percent — of those polled support addressing differences in the quality of education across their states, and 64 percent recognize these differences stem from the disparities in school funding.
School finance systems in many states have not changed since the 1990s, according to the report. In recent years, some states, including Alabama and Georgia, have considered weighted funding systems that would allocate or add funds based on a school district's needs.
"We're now so starved," Carolina Novajk of the A+ education partnership in Alabama said in the report. "Money isn't everything, but it certainly is necessary."
Last month, in his final State of the State address, Haslam unveiled his budget proposal for fiscal year 2018-2019, calling for more than $200 million in funds for K-12 education.
The need for better career and technical education to prepare a better workforce was also a highlight of the report — something that Tennesseans, including Haslam, across the state and region have made a major focus. According to the report, "the South still suffers from a major shortage of adults with two- and four-year degrees and with career certifications."
Only 1 in 3 adults in Alabama, for instance, had an associate degree or above as of 2014. According to SCORE, only 39 percent of Tennesseans have any type of post-secondary credential.
One of the new accountability measures under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind, is whether school districts are producing "ready graduates." This aligns with Haslam's goal of having 55 percent of adults completing postsecondary training by 2025.
Locally, Hamilton County Schools' new superintendent, Bryan Johnson, has made career readiness a priority. In partnership with Chattanooga 2.0 and area business leaders, the district plans to unveil the Future Ready Institutes — industry-themed smaller learning academies housed within the district's high schools — later this month.
Overall, Southerners are seemingly conscious of the inequities that exist across education, and that concern is likely to remain a priority in this election year.