Tennessee governor outlines education initiatives

Hank Hayes • Feb 6, 2007 at 8:42 AM

Tennessee's public school systems - including those in Northeast Tennessee - stand to get large chunks of new state dollars to address at-risk students in K-12 education, Gov. Phil Bredesen said in detailing his proposed education initiatives during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Of the proposed $120 million in new state money for at-risk students in K-12, Bredesen said a preliminary spreadsheet indicates Kingsport City Schools would get about $618,000, Bristol, Tenn., schools would pick up $384,000, and Sullivan County would receive about $1.2 million.

The preliminary spreadsheet also noted that Hawkins County could pick up $1.2 million for at-risk students, while Washington County and Johnson City combined would see more than $1.6 million.

Characteristics of at-risk students include low reading levels, living in a non-supportive family environment and exhibiting low self-esteem, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

To get those at-risk funds, each school system would have to come up with a local match. Kingsport's share, for instance, would be nearly $300,000. Statewide, school systems would have to come up with about $39.7 million, according to the governor's office.

Of Bredesen's proposed $27 million to fund student growth needs statewide, estimates indicate some Middle Tennessee school systems stand to receive more than $1 million apiece, while Kingsport and Sullivan County would get nothing. Johnson City and Washington County, however, could pick up more than $500,000. Hawkins County also stands to gain about $190,000. Actual funding will be based on current year student population information, according to the governor's office.

Bredesen said he believes lawmakers will pass a 40 cent increase in the cigarette tax and let him use state lottery monies to help fund proposals in his education package. Ninety percent of revenue from the cigarette tax increase would go into education, and the remainder would fund agriculture and anti-smoking programs in Tennessee, Bredesen promised.

"I accept the fact that a cigarette tax, at a minimum, is not going to grow as fast as other tax sources in the state," Bredesen said. "It's not a perfect match - a revenue source that grows right along with the cost of education - but it's too much money to not try to find a good way to step up and get it into education. ... This has bipartisan support. I think there is a broad consensus that this increase is appropriate because (Tennessee's cigarette tax at 20 cents) is so low compared to the national averages. ... I think this is something we will pass essentially intact."

Other parts of Bredesen's education plan include $25 million to fund additional pre-K classrooms statewide; $48 million to limit tuition increases at state colleges and universities; $10 million to offer free community college tuition to high school students who make an average score of 19 on the ACT, 19 on the math component and 19 on the test's reading component; and $9.3 million to increase Tennessee's Hope Scholarships to $4,000 annually.

Bredesen also hopes to implement ACT testing for eighth- and 10th-grade students, and to assess their academic needs early on and design individual learning plans to help them graduate on time. He also wants to establish a four-year math requirement in Tennessee's public high schools.

Bredesen indicated he's not ready to undertake a major overhaul of the Basic Education Program (BEP), the state's main funding vehicle for K-12 education.

Members of a BEP Review Committee recently decided they could not move forward with a recommendation to change the BEP from a county to a system-level funding model.

"I certainly have no desire this year to dive into the issue of whether or not it's a county-based model or a school district-based model," Bredesen said of the BEP. "(But) I'm not taking off the table reviewing the BEP and seeing if there are changes that need to be made that make it more responsive, although I think that placing this money particularly in the growth and at-risk categories really addresses a lot of the issues in that regard."

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