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Education Featured NewsTracker

Haslam, Dean Tout Free Community College for Nashville Grads

Both Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean were on hand Monday morning at Nashville State’s southeast campus for the announcement of a new program offering free community college and technical school tuition to all Metro public school graduates.

The initiative, called “nashvilleAchieves,” makes Davidson County the twenty-sixth in the state to offer high school seniors such a deal under a larger umbrella organization called tnAchieves. That organization was started five years ago by Randy Boyd, a Knoxville pet supply mogul and higher-ed adviser to Gov. Haslam.

Boyd spoke at Monday’s event, urging Metro businesses and community members to donate time and money to the program.

The tuition subsidies, which will be especially geared toward low-income and first-generation college goers but open to all graduates, will be paid for with a mixture of public funding and private donations.

According to a press release from Mayor Dean’s office, nashvilleAchieves has already tallied up $1 million in donations from corporate and nonprofit sources while the city plans to commit $750,000 over the next two years.

Speaking to reporters following the announcement, Dean described the programs as “especially meaningful” because it allows the county to “make it possible for every graduating high school senior to go to community college.”

“The city’s future is dependent upon us being a city that produces and attracts college graduates,” he added.

Increasing access to higher education statewide has been a top priority for Gov. Haslam’s administration. During his remarks Monday, Haslam said that only about a third of Tennesseans currently hold an advanced degree and he hailed tnAchieves as a valuable way to raise that number.

“tnAchieves has a proven record of providing the support that ultimately leads to increased post-secondary access, retention and completion,” Haslam said in prepared remarks, adding during a post-event press conference, “The better graduates we produce, then the more businesses are going to want to say ‘we want to be here.’”

Haslam has announced a goal, the so-called “Drive to 55,” to raise the number of state residents with an advanced to degree to 55 percent by 2025. Right the number number is around 32 percent, the governor has said.

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Education Featured NewsTracker

Current Pre-K Funding Staying Where it Is, Haslam Says

Gov. Bill Haslam, Tuesday, reiterated his determination to keep funding pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee at current levels but remained mum about any future plans for expansion.

Speaking to reporters in Jackson, Haslam commented on recent preliminary results from a study by Vanderbilt University comparing the performance of students exposed to pre-k programs and those who are not. The study is ongoing, but the report released last week shows mixed results, especially relating to how long benefits of pre-k education last.

“The results they just reported were a little discouraging in terms of the amount of gain that those pre-k students held on to,” Haslam said Tuesday. “But,” he continued, “we think there are other things to measure and our commitment is to keep funding at its current level until we see another year of two of the study and then we’ll decide from there.”

As The Tennessean reports, the state currently spends about $86 million on pre-k programs, mostly for low income children, and it is eligible to add another $64 million in federal money if Haslam and the legislature agree to put up another $6.4 million in state funds, something that could be less politically viable given the recent Vanderbilt results.

Some critics of pre-k spending including Knoxville Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn have already jumped on the report in recent days. In a statement earlier this week, Dunn dismissed pre-k programs as “very expensive hype.”

For his part, Haslam brushed past any mention of possible political snags, saying Tuesday that his administration would wait at least another year for final results of the study before making any decisions about pursuing the federal expansion dollars.

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Featured Health Care

New Haslam Initiative Aims to Get Tennesseans in Shape

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says it’s about time for the state to hop on the treadmill, eat better and make healthier choices.

Speaking in the gymnasium of a new Jackson health center Tuesday, Haslam announced his plan to start a new state foundation tasked with promoting healthy living in Tennessee communities.

“I love Tennessee, I think it’s the best state but we all know that we can do a better job taking care of ourselves,” Haslam told reporters following the event. “If we’ll exercise more, consume a better diet and either quit or don’t start using tobacco, we can make significant strides,” he said.

Tennessee consistently lands near the bottom on lists that rank states’ overall health.

On Tuesday Haslam emphasized the economic implications of a healthier population, telling the crowd that moving Tennessee closer to the top of the list would save the state money over the long run by reducing healthcare spending and would also do more to attract companies looking for a healthier (and thus potentially less expensive) workforce.

The new Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness will include a “coalition of made up of major employers, hospital systems, health insurers, YMCAs, local governments,” as well as “healthcare-focused foundations and civic organizations,” according to a press release from Haslam’s office.

The foundation’s first major initiative, aptly titled “Healthier Tennessee,” will include statewide outreach, education, and local incentive programs along with data collection and measurement, Haslam said.

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Kyle Spars With State Housing Agency on Memphis Blight

Memphis area state Sen. Jim Kyle took representatives from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency to task Wednesday over what he sees as their failure to address abandoned housing and urban blight issues in his district.

While many lawmakers from less populated districts commended the agency’s work in their areas during a Government Operations Joint Subcommittee meeting, Kyle expressed frustration that the THDA hasn’t taken a more active role in repurposing abandoned homes, which he said encourage crime and contribute to poverty because they drive down property values in already poor neighborhoods.

“This agency is not seeing urban blight as part of its mission,” the Shelby County Democrat told THDA representatives. “If it is part of your mission, you’re not reaching the bar on your mission. If it’s not part of your mission, it needs to be,” he said.

“I’ve got 2,000 vacant homes in one neighborhood in my district, “ Kyle continued. “And for some reason those properties are just sitting there. I’ve got people living under bridges and I’ve got 2,000 empty homes.”

Housing Development Agency director Ralph Perrey, who testified before the subcommittee Wednesday, responded by defending the agency’s work in urban areas, telling legislators that they have had success with smaller initiatives and partnerships but that the issue of urban blight largely fell outside the scope of their purview and resources.

“We are actively engaged with nonprofit partners, with the city of Memphis, with Memphis housing,” Perrey told TNReport following the hearing. “I think within the bounds of what we were set up to do, we have been very actively engaged over there.”

“We were set up to be a housing finance agency and over the years we have also become the state’s instrument for implementing a variety of federal programs in Tennessee but we are not the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” Perrey continued. “We do not have hundreds of millions of dollars of appropriated dollars as the feds do to put to work in an area.”

Kyle, however, didn’t seem to be buying it, telling TNReport “They really need to change their minds on that or face a battle for their existence.”

“We have a Tennessee Housing Development Agency and we have a lot of vacant homes in urban areas,” the senator added. “They need to be part of the solution.”

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Education Featured

Summerville Pushing Tuition Freeze, Claims “Total Authority” Over Public Colleges

State Sen. Jim Summerville is still fuzzy on the details but he says he is concerned about the precipitous rate of tuition increases at Tennessee’s public colleges and universities and thinks some sort of tuition freeze is likely in order.

The Dickson Republican broached the idea in a press release earlier this week, calling recent yearly increases in tuition prices “an outrage.” Speaking to TNReport Tuesday, Summerville expressed concern that “Parents and young folks are being priced out of the [higher education] market.”

“Over the last 10 years, it’s been a 60 percent increase in student tuition,” Summerville continued. “No state agency gets that kind of an increase over a decade. So we need to get control over their spending and find out why this tuition is getting out of hand.”

But beyond the basic idea of freezing prices, Summerville was short on details, including how long such a freeze would last. He told TNReport he was seeking input from other lawmakers and experts before settling on a final proposal.

One group he said he hadn’t reached out to was state higher education officials, but acknowledging the likelihood of pushback from administrators, Summerville smiled, saying “I expect to hear from them.”

Regardless of any such pushback, Summerville maintained that financial restraint at state schools was in order and that the General Assembly should be the one to hold institutions responsible.

“We have total authority over higher education, we can tell them—we can bring them before the Government Operations Committees or the Education Committees and say ‘voters are not happy with this skyrocketing of costs for the universities,’” Summerville told TNReport. “Do you really need all those vice presidents? Do you need those high-paid sports coaches? Show us a plan for reducing expenses,” he said.

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Featured NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Local Tea Parties Denounce Alexander’s Voting Record, Call for Primary Challenge

Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator, may have solid backing from the state’s Republican establishment. But he’s getting no love from local Tea Party groups and hard-core conservative voters who hope to see him unseated in next year’s GOP primary election.

Alexander was on hand at the Smyrna airport Saturday for an event honoring local Republican party chairmen, joined on stage by state GOP party head Chris Devaney and former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate-turned-TV-talking-head Mike Huckabee. Outside, meanwhile, 200-plus protesters, many waving signs and wearing red “Beat Lamar” t-shirts, gathered to denounce Alexander, attacking his voting record as too liberal and labeling the two-term senator a “RINO,” or “Republican In Name Only.”

Among the conservative protesters’ concerns were Sen. Alexander’s support of recent immigration overhaul legislation, an internet sales tax bill that Alexander helped write and votes relating to the “fiscal cliff.” But more than any one specific issue, many said, it is Alexander’s willingness to seek out moderate positions and compromise rather than taking hard conservative stances that are driving them to call for his ouster.

Ben Cunningham with the Nashville Tea Party who helped organize Saturday’s rally pointed to scorecards put out by conservative watchdog groups that rank lawmakers based on their voting histories and which, Cunningham said, consistently put Lamar Alexander on the most liberal end of the list of amongst Republican senators.

“Our concern is that Lamar Alexander’s very unconservative voting record is not being advertised as it should be,” Cunningham told TNReport.

“Lamar Alexander is not a conservative, he’s never been a conservative,” he continued.

“The entire Republican establishment is saying to the whole state of Tennessee ‘We’re not going to let you debate Lamar Alexander’s record. We’re not going to let you have an open debate of all of his votes,’” Cunningham said. For the GOP establishment, he charged, the race “is about the fact that [Alexander] has got an ‘R’ by his name and he’s been there for 12 years. You shouldn’t elect somebody on that basis.”

But so far, a viable contender has yet to emerge to challenge Alexander, who before going to the Senate served as U.S Education Secretary and Tennessee’s governor.

Speakers at the rally encouraged attendees to get involved by knocking on doors and making calls in the runup to the primary but stopped short of naming a specific candidate.

Ben Cunningham with the Nashville Tea Party said there were multiple people he knew who were considering a run and speculated that announcements would be made in coming weeks, but refused to disclose any names.

Professional wrestler and libertarian activist Glenn Jacobs, known by the stage name Kane, appeared to be mulling a run earlier this summer but has subsequently fallen off the radar. Clarksville Republican state Sen. Mark Green aroused speculation amongst conservatives earlier this month after he dropped out of a scheduled appearance at Alexander’s Saturday event. A staffer with Green’s office subsequently told the Tennessean that the cancellation was due to a family scheduling issue.

One name that did receive some chatter amongst protesters Saturday was that of Kevin Kookogey, a former Williamson County GOP party chair and president of a conservative mentoring group who spoke at the rally about his recent testimony before Congress on IRS targeting of Tea Party groups.

Asked if he was considering making a primary challenge to Sen. Alexander, Kookogey said he had been approached several times about the possibility and was “considering it.”

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Featured NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

SC’s Sen. Scott to TN Republicans: Show Voters ‘How Much We Care’

The Tennessee Republican Party’s annual Statesmen’s Dinner Friday night saw the ballroom at Nashville’s new Music City Center packed with a who’s who of state GOP-ers from up and down the ticket including Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and seven members of the state’s U.S. House delegation.

But the big draw of the evening’s program — part award ceremony for local party stalwarts, part partisan pep-rally — was a fresh senator from another southern red state, Tim Scott from South Carolina.

In a recent letter to the Tennessean, state Republican Party Chair Chris Devaney called Scott as a “rising national star,” praising him as “refreshing voice of principle who is guided by an unyielding faith in God and rock-ribbed Republican values of less government influence and individual liberty.”

In his keynote address Friday, Scott, who served as U.S. congressman for two years before being tapped by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to fill a vacant Senate seat in January, struck an optimistic note, predicting political gains in upcoming elections. But Scott told the crowd Republicans need to reach out and connect with citizens to find success in the ballot box.

“Where we are as a country, it doesn’t look very good. I understand that we have major challenges in this nation but I also understand that the greatest days of America is ahead of it,” Scott told the audience. “I think we can win back the Senate in 2014, we have a grand opportunity in front of us and America will give us an opportunity to lead again in the Senate.”

“There are a couple things that we have to remember in order to get there,” he continued. “The first thing is this, that America, they want to know how much we know but they want to know it after they understand how much we care. Our ability to achieve success in the Senate and maintain the House will be our ability to communicate our message effectively.”

Sen. Scott also predicted a Republican return to the White House in 2016, saying it would be a “wonderful day” after “eight long years of President Obama” and earned cheers with a crowd-pleasing attack on the Affordable Care Act, which he charged was “eroding the very foundation of freedom as we know it in health care.”

“I think we ought repeal Obamacare today,” Scott said to heavy applause. “The employer mandate is not enough, the individual mandate would not be enough,” he continued, referring to two requirements of the law, the first of which the Obama administration has recently said it will put off enacting for an extra year.

Scott also claimed that the ACA “adds $800 billion of new taxes and new responsibilities on the back of everyday citizens,” and argued that the new law “takes away the very precious relationship between a doctor and a patient.

Scott is currently campaigning to keep his Senate seat for another two years in a 2014 special election that will determine who gets to serve out the remaining term of his predecessor Jim DeMint.

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Education Featured NewsTracker

New Online College Opens with Haslam’s Backing

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was on hand Tuesday morning to mark the creation of a new government-supported online degree provider in the state. The Tennessee branch of the Western Governors University will be geared toward adult students looking to finish their degrees and represents a key piece of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” workforce development plan—raising the percentage of state citizens with some sort of college diploma to 55 percent by 2025.

WGU, which has programs in four other states, is getting $5 million in Tennessee taxpayer money to set up their operation here, thanks in large part to Haslam, who prodded the state Legislature to choose the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit rather than having existing local colleges and universities develop similar programs.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Haslam said WGU is the best fit to for handling the state’s higher education aims.

“Our picture of what a college student looks like is dated,” Haslam said. “Only about 25 percent of college students today graduate from high school, go to school for four years, then enter the workforce. The vast majority of folks tend to be older, have some work experience and need to come back and get a degree.”

“WGU is a way for us to address those folks here in Tennessee so we can dramatically increase the number of Tennesseans who have a degree,” the governor continued.

Joining Haslam to sign a memorandum of understanding officially establishing the new school, WGU president, Robert W. Mendenhall, who told attendees that the thing that really sets the program apart is its “competency-based” model.

Students at WGU receive credit for skill development rather than for hours of class time, Mendenhall said.

Western Governors University in Tennessee will offer degrees in four areas including business, teaching-training, IT and healthcare, and tuition is roughly $6,000 per year.

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Vote of Confidence for Huffman from Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam expressed his continued confidence in Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman Monday, telling reporters, “If I was going to hire an education commissioner again today, I would hire Kevin Huffman.”

“If you look at the state’s who are making the most progress in education, Tennessee is at the top of that list and Kevin gets a lot of credit for that,” Haslam continued.

Huffman has faced recent criticism, primarily from teachers’ groups and state Democrats, after his department successfully pushed an overhaul of the state’s public school teacher pay system through a Board of Education vote last month. As The Tennessean reported recently, the policy change has prompted opponents to call for Huffman’s ouster via Facebook and online petitioning.

While Haslam’s education agenda has received positive feedback from federal officials in the past — both in the form of funding from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program as well as praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan — push-back has come from various quarters on the state level, especially around the increasing presence of charter schools and the coming implementation of national Common Core standards in state classrooms.

But Monday, Haslam mostly shrugged off criticism. “The work we’re doing is hard. We’re saying we’re not satisfied being in the 40’s [in state rankings] when it comes to education,” said the governor. “We’re making those changes that I think will move us forward.”

And according to a related report today from The New Republic, Haslam’s and Huffman’s work has found a strong supporter in Huffman’s ex-wife, firebrand education reform activist and former D.C. school superintendent Michelle Rhee whose lobbying group, the magazine writes, has been giving Tennessee special attention and sizable cash injections in local elections.

Unionized teachers and minority-party Democrats in the Legislature have been complaining bitterly of late about a new teacher-salary plan approved by the state Board of Education last month. The plan, which goes into effect for new hires beginning in the upcoming school year, gives local school districts latitude to determine payment scales for teachers.

Some teachers and Democrats fear the move will will ultimately over time make teaching a less attractive field to young college grads. Huffman and the plan’s supporters, however, argue that it will in fact encourage higher-caliber prospects to apply.

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Haslam Defends Common Core

With pressure from some Tennessee conservatives mounting against Common Core school standards, Gov. Bill Haslam says he is standing strong in his decision to implement them in the state.

During a press conference Tuesday, Haslam told reporters that he believes joining 44 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting the federal classroom benchmarks will help Tennessee stay economically competitive.

“I feel strongly in this sense: Common Core is about raising the standards and defining the standards so that everybody knows what a third grader should be able to do in math or an eighth grader,” said the Republican governor.

“The most common thing I hear — I’ve talked to five different businesses, literally, in the last week and every one of the them is saying the same thing: ‘We love being here but the prepared workforce that we need is lacking,” Haslam continued. “And that doesn’t just start when you get out of school, it obviously starts earlier and I think part of that is we make certain our third graders are learning the math they need to so that ten years from now these companies aren’t saying ‘we don’t have the workforce that we need.’”

But the new standards, which include various grade-level expectations in math and English, have drawn fierce opposition from some parents and conservative activists in the state. And some high-visibility Republican politicians are increasingly turning their backs on the proposed changes.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais from Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District voiced full-throated disapproval of Common Core implementation. A press release from DesJarlais’s office called the standards “watered down” and “bad policy, implemented unfairly, that achieves mediocrity at the expense of states’ sovereignty and local control.”

There have also been murmurings of disapproval amongst conservative legislators on the state level, too.

Reached by phone Tuesday, state House GOP Caucus Chair Glen Casada told TNReport that many of his members have expressed concern and have “a lot of questions.”

The Franklin lawmaker said it’s too early to comment on specific measures the General Assembly might take next year, but indicated he’s looking for the Haslam administration to provide empirical data that Common Core standards will be beneficial for students and not “just another fad that’s come down the pike.”

Concerns and questions aside, the governor appears to be moving forward with the implementations process. According to a Department of Education press release from June 18, the administration is launching a large-scale, voluntary teacher training program on the new standards and over 32,000 state teachers have signed up.

The release quotes Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, a Haslam appointee, saying, “The scale of this training marks an unprecedented commitment to equip students with the critical thinking skills necessary to compete. We are dedicated to giving our teachers the support they need to drive toward excellence during this transition.”