Senate Democrats Discuss Education Options

Thursday, February 17, 2005 - by Andy Spears, Senate Democratic Press Secretary

NASHVILLE -- On the heels of a national study which ranked Tennessee’s high school graduation rate of 57% one of the worst in the nation at 48th, Senate Democrats discussed possible options for improving the state’s schools.

“The numbers in this study are disappointing and unacceptable,” said Senator Don McLeary of Jackson, who serves as Vice Chair of the Senate Education Committee. “Education should be a top priority of state government. There is no time to waste in finding ways to improve our schools.”

The study was conducted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. In addition to ranking Tennessee 48th in high school graduation rates, the study noted that Tennessee had one of the biggest declines in graduation rates since 1991. In 1991, the graduation rate in Tennessee was 69%, 12 points higher than the current level of 57%. Additionally, Tennessee’s rate is 14 points lower than the national average of 71%.

One long-term solution to the problem of low graduation rates is an expansion of pre-kindergarten education programs. Democratic Senators noted that numerous studies indicate that students who have completed pre-k programs are more likely to graduate from high school, complete college and find a stable, good paying job. While the impact of pre-k won’t be fully felt for years to come, expanding the program certainly would lay the groundwork for a stronger educational system.

“The Governor has proposed spending $25 million on pre-k in this year’s budget,” Sen. McLeary said. “We already know the pilot program is showing good results. With a new commitment to pre-k, we can expand the program on a voluntary basis and give more children the fair start they need.”

Democrats also noted that for too long, a lack of viable options after high school has fostered a lack of hope among students. Tuition rates have increased at nearly 10% a year for the last four to five years. Additionally, especially in rural areas, a lack of good jobs means students sometimes feel there is no reason to earn a high school diploma.

“We’ve got to get the message out to students that there are options after high school,” Sen. McLeary said. “We have too many students suffering from a lack of hope. When four out of ten ninth graders are not finishing high school, we’ve got a huge problem.

Sen. McLeary said that the lottery scholarships were one step in the right direction.
“When we enacted the lottery scholarships, we took a bold step in the right direction,” Sen. McLeary said. “Now, students have a positive incentive to stay in school and earn good grades. They know that a college education is within reach if they simply stay on track.
The next part of this equation is slowing the rate of tuition increases. We need to make a commitment to improving our state colleges and universities. Again, this year, we should be taking a step in that direction with a commitment of $127 million in capital maintenance and construction.”

Attracting and retaining jobs is the next part of improving education in Tennessee. Democrats made the case that there is a strong link between education and jobs that runs both ways.

“We’ve got to be sure that students in school know that there are jobs out there for them when they graduate,” Sen. McLeary said. “If they see a lack of opportunity after high school, they will see little incentive to stay in school. What this means is we must continue to do all we can to attract and retain good jobs in our state. Tax incentives, infrastructure improvements, and just plain good salesmanship are the keys to a successful jobs agenda.

Sen. McLeary said he looks forward to more dialogue about both programs and noted that a renewed commitment to public education is long overdue.

“It’s about time for Tennessee to be getting serious about education,” Sen. McLeary said. “We have the opportunity to make a long-term commitment to education that will make a difference not only in graduation rates but also in a better quality of life for all Tennesseans.”

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