NASHVILLE -- Last year, Tennessee two-year colleges spent an estimated $18.45 million on remedial classes in areas like math, reading and writing so unprepared students could start doing college-level work.
Now state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, thinks he has a partial answer to a problem that state lawmakers have griped about for decades.
He's introduced Senate Bill 526, which would require Tennessee public school districts to reimburse the costs of recent high school graduates who have had to take a remedial course.
Gardenhire cited the bill in a Times Free Press interview over the ongoing uproar on Tennessee's Common Core standards and legislative efforts to come up with new standards for math and English language arts to replace them.
"I have no problem with higher standards for our kids," Gardenhire said, then brought up his own bill. "If the child comes out of our high school and they have to have remedial courses, the [local school districts] have to pick up the tab for that remedial course."
If local districts "don't have high standards," he said, "then they can't expect these kids to succeed in college and get a degree.
"There are several ways to approach it. You can set higher standards -- call it what you want -- or you can force the LEAs [local districts] to complete the child's education. I expect it to pass in the Senate."
The bill, whose House sponsor is Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, is restricted to remedial coursework costs for any college student who graduated from a Tennessee public high school within the past 16 months.
Seventy percent of students need remedial help, say state estimates.
Gardenhire, a Senate Education Committee member, said his bill "doesn't count kids who've already graduated [and] gone to work somewhere" and decide later to go to college. He estimates those adults account for about 60 percent of students needing the remedial courses.
"They need remedial courses," Gardenhire said of such people. "If I went back to school right now, I'd need remedial courses." But newly minted high school graduates shouldn't need the help, he said.
Schools aren't so big on Gardenhire's concept.
"That legislation, at first glance, appears punitive, and we prefer to work in cooperative fashion with our higher ed partners," said Robert Sharpe, assistant superintendent of the Hamilton County Department of Education.
The Tennessee School Boards Association, which represents local school boards across the state, said in a statement that Tennessee "has some of the highest standards in the country and we demand much from our students. A student could be required to take remedial courses for any number of reasons.
"This bill fails to take the individual student into account, and attempts to hold [local education agencies] responsible for situations that are more than likely well outside of their control," the statement added.
Hamilton County offers remedial math to high school seniors through the Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) math program, Assistant Superintendent Robert Sharpe said. "We identify them early," Sharpe said. "They take the course as a senior." SAILS, which was developed at Chattanooga State Community College, is for students who take the ACT college prep test in their junior year and score lower than 19 in math, according to the SAILS program's website. Hamilton County piloted the SAILS math several years ago at Red Bank High School, Sharpe said. The program SAILS went statewide in the 2013-14 academic year. All 13 institutions in Tennessee's community college system partnered with 118 high schools serving 8,400 students, according to Chattanooga State. Of students taking the SAILS math class, 70 percent were ready for college-level math upon high school graduation, the SAILS program's website said.
Remedial education refers to college classes offered to students who are below college-level. Under changes implemented in 2012, students needing remedial courses must first attend community colleges before entering public four-year universities.
Students pay tuition for the courses and can use financial aid, but they don't earn college credits. And, according to national estimates, only 25 percent wind up making it through college.
But after decades of hand-wringing in Tennessee and elsewhere across the country, an expanding program pioneered in 2012 by Chattanooga State, which seeks to nip the issue in the bud, may be providing another solution.
And it's getting results and gaining national notice.
The program is called SAILS -- Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support. SAILS introduces college developmental math curriculum into high school for seniors who scored less than 19 for math on the ACT college entrance exam.
"That has become really an unmitigated success, said Russ Deaton, interim director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, of SAILS.
Deaton said he hasn't seen Gardenhire's bill.
Dr. Kim McCormick, Chattanooga state's provost and vice president for academic affairs, said SAILS funding for 2015 a rose to $2.45 million for 8,903 students last fall at 179 high schools. Another 2,120 enrolled this spring.
"Out of those 8,903 students, 5,774 have completed," McCormick said, adding they have until May to finish.
She said if they were paying tuition to take the colleges' Learning Support Math program, "the students' parents or whomever would have saved $6.7 million, $6.8 million."
That "whomever" in the future would include the state. Haslam's Tennessee Promise program plans to use interest earned from a special education lottery account to fund "last dollar" scholarships for all Tennessee high school graduates to attend community colleges. It amounts to a free ride on tuition and Haslam is betting it will help the state achieve his goal to have 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college or community college degree or certificate by 2025.
McCormick, the wife of House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said she wasn't familiar with Gardenhire's legislation.
Meanwhile, Chattanooga State is embarking on another problem involving remedial work with about $200,000 the state included in the current budget.
"We are building the pilot for reading and writing, which is basically literacy, for English as we speak," McCormick said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.