Tennessee has won national recognition and reaped a windfall of federal money for its reform-friendly attitudes among state politicians.
But the real challenge ahead is putting policies to work that actually improve learning in government-funded schools, gubernatorial candidates agreed during a forum Thursday in Franklin.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp right off the bat issued a warning to the room full of educators at the Tennessee Education Association conference that outwardly noble efforts like Race to the Top and the Tennessee Diploma Project will not have their desired effects unless the education system wakes up to the need to emphasize early childhood reading.
Wamp has made the point that if children are not proficient in reading by the third grade, their chances of success after that are dramatically reduced. While he applauds some of the programs the state is excited about in terms of its future in education, Wamp repeatedly made his point.
“We can raise standards until we’re blue in the face, but if 8th graders can’t read at a 4th grade level, you will not reach those standards,” Wamp said. “We all know that. We’ve got to drill down on this early childhood reading piece.”
Within the last week, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has declared that if there are strings attached to the $500 million in federal Race to the Top funds, he might not accept them if he is elected governor. Ramsey was not at Thursday’s event at the Embassy Suites in Franklin. State Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, spoke on Ramsey’s behalf.
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Jackson businessman Mike McWherter participated in the forum. Wamp, Haslam and Ramsey are Republicans. McWherter is a Democrat and as the lone candidate on his party’s side, he is assured of the nomination in the Aug. 5 primary.
Tennessee landed a hefty purse of federal funds — $500 million — with its application for federal Race to the Top education money this year, and a bipartisan mood of self-congratulation has prevailed ever since.
Gov. Phil Bredesen has earned high marks, after he and the General Assembly put together reforms in a special session on education that set the stage for the Race to the Top application. Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist’s organization, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, has played a key role in the effort, and he and Bredesen continue to work on ways to implement the award.
Wamp and Ramsey acknowledge the potential in those funds. The Tennessee Diploma Project will raise standards on students, and Haslam said the state will need to communicate well when those higher standards make student performance look worse by comparison.
After the forum, Haslam was asked if Wamp’s assertion about the risk in not addressing early childhood reading is valid, and Haslam said the premise is right but that the issue is not that simple.
“There’s no question that getting children reading on their grade level is incredibly important. Logically a student is not going to do well in 4th grade history unless the student reads well,” Haslam said. “But I don’t think it’s as easy as saying if we catch everybody up to the grade-level at kindergarten or the first grade it’s going to go well. Many other factors figure into that.”
Applause occasionally broke out during the forum, and more times than not it was for McWherter, the Democrat, addressing the teachers’ union’s concerns. That was especially the case on a question about parental accountability and student responsibility.
After the Republicans had given answers involving communication with parents, giving local control to districts and, with Wamp again, the importance of early childhood reading, McWherter said, “I think they’re missing the point here.” And it drew applause.
“We’ve got to make sure we level the playing field, with rules and regulations that will acknowledge the stituation you face in the classroom every day,” McWherter said. “You’re not just teachers, you’re almost sheriffs in the classroom. I understand that. You’ve got a real issue out there with parental involvement.
“We’re going to be out there on a bully pulpit, supporting teachers, encouraging parental involvement and making sure you can instill discipline in those classrooms without having to be fearful of being sued or fired or whatever.”
Each of the candidates, including Johnson for Ramsey, vowed to fully fund the state’s Basic Education Program, which funds K-12 schools. Haslam pledged his full commitment to funding BEP but repeatedly warned that other attractive programs may be denied by the state’s budget crunch, as federal stimulus funds run out next year.
McWherter linked his efforts to boost jobs in the state to producing a quality workforce through education. He made special mention of his desire to expand the state’s pre-K program, which he called a model for the rest of the country and credited Bredesen with its success.
Haslam noted that he had never been at an event before where he saw so many people paying attention and taking notes as he did the education crowd.
McWherter rarely makes a public appearance without some reference to his father, former Gov. Ned McWherter, who remains popular throughout the state, and Thursday’s forum was no exception.
One question pertained to the role the TEA would have in each candidate’s budget process if elected.
“TEA has always been hugely supportive of my family,” McWherter said. “I can tell you if you are not involved in my administration, I’m going to get taken to the woodshed, and I know it.”
Wamp’s answer to the same question was, “I’m tempted with a smile on my face to say if you will support the prioritization of my early childhood reading initiative, I’ll be happy to let you be involved in the formation of the budget, because I feel that strongly about it.”