Want help for education? Call it a jobs need

Want help for education? Call it a jobs need

September 7th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Gov. Bill Haslam addresses education and jobs during a meeting with Times Free Press staffers.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

Parents have been clamoring for years in Tennessee for officials to improve schools.

Education experts have been clamoring for decades that future jobs depend on better education.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, like probably every governor before him, has agreed.

But Haslam, a Republican businessman, says the future is now, as he hears "about four times a week" from Tennessee employers and prospective employers that they fear Tennessee's workforce is not and will not be well-educated enough to meet their needs.

Studies bear this out: By the year 2025, at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a four-year college degree, a two-year degree or at least a 1-year certificate in order to keep up with job demand. Currently only 32 percent of us have a certificate or degree beyond high school.

So while supporting education didn't get the needed attention, finally the specter of lost jobs -- and the new state revenue they bring in -- has proven to be the hot button. Especially as the state continues to try to reel in major companies such as Hyundai and auto assembly plant suppliers.

The governor is stumping the state this week with his "Drive to 55" program. But it will be tough going. If every child in 6th grade graduates from high school (and we know that's not going to happen), and every high school graduate goes to college (and we know that won't happen), we still wouldn't get there. And on our current trajectory, we'll be at just 39 percent -- or halfway to our goal by 2025, Haslam told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporters and editors on Friday.

To make improvements, Haslam has persuaded Randy Boyd to leave his day job as the head of Radio Systems Corp. in Knoxville for a year to volunteer his time to spread a non-profit organization, tnAchieves, or offshoots of it, over the state. Boyd started tnAchieves in Knoxville, and it has sent more than 3,200 high school graduates to community college free of charge with mentors. The money to do this is raised from donors. In Knox County, the program runs on $1 million a year and is funded by seven donors, he said. The program now is up and running in 27 counties,

This is wow stuff. But helping Tennesseans receive more and better education still needs much more of a jump-start, both at college level and in secondary schools. Tennessee ranks 49th in the country for K-12 spending.

What's more, Hamilton County officials have not warmed to the tnAchieves program. In fact, we are now the lone holdout among the state's four biggest counties. County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat, say the tnAchieves program is worth examining. But they also point to their own education initiatives aimed at boosting opportunities for local students.

Let's hope that lukewarm endorsement is not based on isolationism or partisan politics.

So far, home-grown efforts have not made the grade anywhere in Tennessee. Nearly 70 percent of Tennessee students entering community college need remedial classes before they can take college level courses. What's worse? Of those students in remedial classes, only 5 percent will eventually graduate from their degree program.

Haslam is right to push for higher education. But both he and local officials should also be pushing for better secondary education -- even when it means remembering that we get what we pay for.

Hamilton County schools and the Tennessee Department of Education have been forced to cut their budgets, and Haslam has cut food sales taxes twice and has made trims to the Hall Income Tax. And while the state touts programs that track student learning not just grade-by-grade, but also classroom-by-classroom, state law prohibits making the classroom and teacher-specific data available to the public. "We don't want to beat up on our teachers," Haslam said Friday.

So, parents, take a lesson. The next time you want to clamor about your child's education, frame it in a discussion about jobs and new tax revenue.