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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / ...Bill Lee, a Tennessee gubernatorial candidate, talks about his candidacy during a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at his office in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn.

Quality education is one of the most important issues Tennessee voters are thinking about before they cast their ballots in November, according to a statewide poll.

At least one-third of voters said education is an important issue in deciding their vote for governor, the poll conducted by the nonpartisan education policy and advocacy nonprofit State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) found.

More than 75 percent of voters would prefer a candidate who favors policies that would better prepare students for post-secondary education and careers, the poll also found. The majority of Tennesseans — 59 percent — are not confident that high school graduates are prepared for the workforce and 47 percent do not think students are prepared for college.

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Karl Dean speaks at the Spring into Action Rally at Grundy County High School Saturday, April 7, 2018 in Grundy County, Tenn. Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, is a democratic candidate running for the Tennessee governor seat.

"One of the biggest problems facing Tennessee education is voters do not think the state's high school graduates are properly prepared for the next stages of life, whether that is college or a job. In response to this concern, views of programs that can benefit high school graduates are very positive," according to the poll results.

During Gov. Bill Haslam's two terms, Tennessee has worked to improve the quality of education across the state.

In 2013, Tennessee students outpaced the rest of the nation in improvement on the Nation's Report Card, or NAEP, but several consecutive years of testing failures have left a shadow over the state's education performance. Haslam has also pushed for more Tennesseans to earn post-secondary certifications and degrees through the Tennessee Reconnect initiative, which offers many Tennessee adults the chance to attend community colleges tuition free.

"Tennessee as a state has been working to improve education for more than 10 years, and this survey indicates voters see a need for the next governor to continue to focus on education," said David Mansouri, SCORE president, in a statement. "Over the next 58 days, voters are going to be thinking about how Tennessee can continue to advance the state's historic gains in student achievement as they decide their vote for governor."

Democrat Karl Dean and GOP nominee Bill Lee will face off in the Nov. 6 election.

Dean recognizes that education is the "the No. 1 priority" for most people, he previously told the Times Free Press.

As Nashville mayor, he boosted the education budget by 37 percent, put $600 million into capital programs and raised starting teacher pay from 30th in the state to third.

Dean was also criticized for supporting charter schools during his administration. Lee is also in favor of school choice, though the political newcomer has been less specific about what type of choice — private schools, public charter schools, vouchers, etc. — he supports.

The survey of 600 likely voters, conducted via telephone by the Fabrizio, Lee & Associates and Benenson Strategy Group, noted that participants were most in favor of five policies for improving education.

The policies the majority of voters agreed upon included: expanding efforts to ensure Tennesseans have greater access to post-high school education (73 percent), providing more opportunities for workforce certificates for high school students (72 percent), state grants to local communities to improve workforce and college readiness (73 percent), work-based learning experiences for high school students (65 percent) and personalized college and career counseling for high school students (58 percent).

Districts across the state have been tackling college and career readiness in recent years. Under new Superintendent Bryan Johnson's leadership, Hamilton County has ramped up its efforts to ensure its graduates will be successful, with the launch of Future Ready Institutes (small, industry-themed learning academies) and more emphasis on work-based learning and classes such as Advanced Placement or excelling in Algebra 1 that will set up students for success.

Other education policies supported by a majority of voters surveyed include making early grade literacy the state's top priority (64 percent), giving parents more choices for where to send their child to school (63 percent), and expanding quality pre-kindergarten opportunities (59 percent), according to a news release.

Outside of education, health care and the economy/jobs were among the top issues that matter to voters this fall, the poll states.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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