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Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / Learning labs are ready for students at Howard Connect Academy on Aug. 5, 2019. Education is the most important legislative issue for most Tennesseans, according to a new poll.

Other than health care, education is the most important legislative issue for most Tennesseans, according to poll results released Friday by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

Of a dozen issues, including jobs, gun rights, immigration and the opioid crisis, 15% of respondents said education should be the top priority for Gov. Bill Lee and the state Legislature, just behind the 18% that indicated health care was the top issue.

Most Tennesseans also think the state is "on the right track," and 69% support continuing to use the controversial TNReady assessment to evaluate students and the schools.

And most of those polled — or 79% — also indicated that post-secondary education is necessary to get a job in today's economy. More than 80% of survey respondents said they were more likely to support state legislators who voted to make a college education more affordable and accessible.

"Tennesseans understand that a rewarding career now requires education beyond high school, and they support a wide range of options, from Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology to state community colleges and four-year universities," SCORE President and CEO David Mansouri said in a statement. "SCORE has recently expanded its mission to encompass student success from the time they start kindergarten until they begin their careers, and this survey confirms that Tennesseans want our students to have multiple paths to adult success."

The poll, conducted from Sept. 23-25, asked 500 registered voters in Tennessee questions about K-12 and post-secondary education in the state. SCORE has conducted such surveys annually since 2015 to identify popular opinion on current policies.

The poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies — the same polling firm that conducted Hamilton County's poll earlier this year evaluating whether Hamilton County voters supported more funding for public education.

ABOUT THIS POLL

The poll was conducted by Robert Blizzard of Public Opinion Strategies. It polled 4500 registered voters across Tennessee. Of those polled, 250 were called via landlines and 250 were called via cellphones. The margin of error was 4.4%. The poll was conducted live via telephone between Sept. 23-25.

Though the poll found that more than 80% of respondents were in favor of state legislators who worked to make college affordable and accessible to all students — a push that has included the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs under former Gov. Bill Haslam's Drive to 55 initiative — less than half of respondents viewed the Tennessee Promise program favorably.

But almost one-third of those polled had never heard of the program. The results, Mansouri said, indicated a need to build a greater understanding of the initiative.

The TN Promise program, launched in 2014, provides "last dollar" scholarships to high school graduates wanting to attend two-year state community colleges or colleges of applied technology.

Those polled do view community colleges and vocational training favorably, though, with 91% in favor of community colleges and 89% in favor of technical training.

More than half of respondents said that post-secondary degrees were meant to prepare students for a career, which indicates that voters see the need for education beyond high school, even in various forms, said pollster Robert Blizzard of Public Opinion Strategies.

"It's clear that Tennesseans agree that it is essential to prepare all students to succeed in college, career, and life," Mansouri added in a statement. "To achieve that goal, SCORE is working to drive the needed changes that will better align K-12 and post-secondary education and better prepare students to thrive economically, civically, and personally."

Workforce and economic development are a strong emphasis of Gov. Bill Lee's administration, and many Tennesseans agree there is a need to prepare students both for higher education and for the workforce.

The University of Tennessee system Interim President Randy Boyd recently launched the UT Promise program that mirrors the Tennessee Promise program but fills in funding gaps for Tennessee students at the UT system's four-year universities.

The TN Promise program itself has boosted enrollment at state colleges and universities since the first cohort started college in 2014, officials say.

The poll also indicated strong views in favor of increased accountability in K-12 schools, positive opinions of the controversial TNReady assessment and the desire for more public school choice among the majority of poll respondents.

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

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