Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen signs the BEP 2.0 education funding reform package Thursday at Eastman’s Toy F. Reid Employee Center. David Grace photo.
KINGSPORT - Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen on Thursday hosted a ceremonial bill signing for his education funding reform and accountability package, and then talked with area business leaders "about where we go from here" on raising academic standards.
At the start of moderating a roundtable discussion at the Eastman Employee Center, the governor said measures to improve education were overshadowed by lawmakers' recent debate over a 42-cent-per-pack cigarette tax hike to finance education funding reform.
"When you mention the ‘T word,' everyone gets sweaty ... and the attention goes to the funding side of things," Bredesen said of the debate. "(But) this issue of aligning standards of education and the workplace is very important. ... This helps me a lot to know where the soft spots are."
Bredesen noted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has given Tennessee an "F" on "Truth in Advertising" - that the state gets very poor marks on the credibility of its student proficiency scores.
He then listened to business leaders who told stories about prospective employees who couldn't add, communicate or complete a test as part of a job application.
Regional Alliance for Economic Development President and CEO Andy Burke pointed to a work force profile showing workers have "borderline" skills in math, problem solving and verbal communications.
"The most disturbing thing was that 27 percent to 28 percent did not have a high school education," he told Bredesen. "(In economic development), it used to be ‘Where is the cheapest place to do business?' and now it's "Where is the best talent?'"
Bristol Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lisa Meadows said there's a "lack of connection" between education and business.
"They really don't understand what business needs," she said of educators.
Bredesen also made a pitch for the Tennessee Diploma Project (TDP), an effort to align high school standards with the demands of college and work. TDP is sponsored by the Tennessee Business Roundtable, a nonpartisan group of state business leaders who have been asked to complete questionnaires on essential job skills. TDP's end goal is to "clearly define job skills needed for certain entry-level positions" in the workplace and give that information to state officials looking to upgrade educational standards.
"The success of any business is directly linked to the academic preparation of the men and women that it employs," Eastman Chemical Co. Chairman and CEO Brian Ferguson said during the bill signing ceremony. "We're no different from that. Of course, we expect our school systems to be governed with vision, to be managed effectively and to be publicly accountable for their performance."
The reform of Tennessee's Basic Education Program will put about a half-billion new dollars into education, Bredesen said.
"Money is not the sole answer to every issue that exists in education," Bredesen said at the bill signing ceremony. "I think what we have to recognize is that this is a two-sided approach. On one hand, this is very much about standards and accountability, beginning to apply some of the standard management practices that work so well in other areas of education, but also recognizing that you can't ask people to do those things and say ‘Oh by the way, here's all the things you have to do, and you're not going to get any more money to do it with.' That's just putting your head in the sand, and we're not doing this. ... We're trying to step up in government to do our part. ... This is not the last step today. It's not even close."
Four state lawmakers, including state Rep. Nathan Vaughn of Kingsport, spoke at the bill signing ceremony.
Vaughn, a Democrat, noted "there was a lot of arguing going on" between lawmakers about how to deal with education funding reform.
"Everybody was talking about who was going to sue who, and it was just a matter of when the lawsuits started. ... (Bredesen) looked at what was the right thing to do as compared to what was the politically expedient thing to do and made the tough decisions," Vaughn said.
At the roundtable discussion, Bredesen encouraged business leaders to hold "the political structure" accountable for education decisions.
The governor pointed out that a group of Northeast Tennessee lawmakers "happily voted" for education funding reform, but not for the cigarette tax hike to fund it. Two Republicans, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville and House GOP Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, were in that group. Neither was at the bill signing ceremony.
"You can't let people get away with that," Bredesen said.