Who Wants to be an ‘Education Governor’?

Gov. Bill Haslam gives bipartisan high marks to Phil Bredesen and Lamar Alexander for their records as governors on education.

Haslam, a history buff, has been telling audiences recently that he has been reading about Tennessee’s past governors. He has made the point of how, going back to Austin Peay, who served from 1923-27, every governor has said he wanted to be the education governor.

But that puzzles Haslam because after all those education governors, the state still ranks in the 40s nationally in education.

Haslam hasn’t let on exactly what he has been reading, nor has he told audiences which governors he thought did a better job on education than others.

So Haslam was asked what he’s been reading and who stands out.

He didn’t say what he has read, but he offered up the names of Bredesen, a Democrat, and Alexander, a Republican, as achievers. Bredesen immediately preceded Haslam as governor, serving from 2003-2011. Alexander served as governor from 1979-87.

Haslam said this week he is impressed with governors who push standards the most, and that gives points to Bredesen.

“I think that’s one of the great things about Race to the Top. It was about raising standards,” Haslam said.

Bredesen used the special session on education in 2010 to nail down the state’s bid for federal Race to the Top funding for education reform. The state won $501 million, which is being put to work now in the state’s ongoing education reform plans.

Then there is Alexander.

“I think Lamar did a really good job of trying to tie teachers’ performance to student achievement,” Haslam said.

Alexander initiated a five-step career-ladder program for teachers that included merit pay.

Putting the choices in perspective, the reasoning lines up with Haslam’s own ideas in education reform.

“Those are kind of the two basics of what we’re doing now, raising the level of expectation and tying students’ performance to how we evaluate teachers,” Haslam said. “And those are ideas that have been out there awhile. Hopefully, they’re now fully incorporated in the mainstream.”

Haslam said he will continue to focus on education.

“I’ve looked and tried to figure out what has worked and what hasn’t. If you go back, you’ll see the governors who focus on how their legislation or initiatives impacted the classroom made the biggest difference,” Haslam said.

“The question is how do we get the very best people standing in front of the class, and how do we make it so more students raise their attainment level and their expectation level?”

Although elected on a platform that emphasized job growth, when Haslam spoke to a dinner breakfast last week, he said his time as governor would probably be evaluated most by whether he “moved the needle” on education in the state.