Roy Exum: The ‘Tennessee Promise’

Monday, February 10, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There was a “confidential” envelope in my mail the other day that had a very official plastic credit card enclosed with my name in raised, silver embossed letters. It was from a local car dealership that I admire and the accompanying letter said I was “pre-approved” to buy a car for up to $32,000 with not a penny down. Well, my chest started to swell and I felt pretty good about myself. Hey, I’ve got some folks who believe in me! Come on down!

But then I started reading the fine print and the interest rate, it said, was 18 percent. Whoa; I know that right now Toyota is offering 2.9 percent on most cars – some at zero percent – and as I read more about this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to own a new car, it struck me that some people were going to waltz down that not-so-sunny lane and end up getting in trouble. I see too much of that these days; if it’s too good to be true, the chances are real good … it really is too good to be true.

The reason I tell the story is because I worry about people, most especially our young, and as I survey our constantly changing landscape, I am assured that never in the history of America has an education been as vital. Whether watching a modern-day assembly line at Amazon or shaking my head in wonder as a master mechanic diagnoses a Lexus with at least 10 different onboard computers, the technical aspect combined with a solid foundation in math, reading and social studies is – I believe -- a prerequisite to a good and fulfilling life.

That’s precisely why my heart took a leap last week when Governor Bill Haslam took a giant step in Tennessee’s future by announcing what his administration is calling the “Tennessee Promise” during his annual State of the State message to our legislature in Nashville. If we can gather behind the Governor and encourage our legislature to embrace a tuition-free plan that will offer Tennessee’s high school graduates an additional two years at a community or technical college at no cost to the student, we will -- in fact -- enrich the lives of each and every person who lives in Tennessee.

Governor Haslam has been a champion of education since taking office and his Drive to 55, a program that hopes to increase those in the state with a post-secondary certificate or degree to 55 percent by the year 2025 (we are 32 percent now), is admittedly a great dream. But when our governor has figured a way to take money from our educational lottery and underwrite a two-year program that covers tuition and fees for every child who scores at least a 19 on the ACT exam, that dream becomes a very real and thrilling promise that is virtually guaranteed to last a lifetime.

Candidly, I find myself worrying more and more about our future generations. When one in four of our kids don’t finish high school I can almost predict what a trying life is in store for every one of them. If you can’t add and multiple, read technical instructions, or lack basic computer skills, those handicaps in today’s society are very frightening for all of us and – by using strict statistical analysis – cost the taxpayers money.

We talk about the gap between the rich and the poor but we fail to mention the increasing void between the learned and unlearned. By the year 2025 – 11 years from now – Governor Haslam is being very earnest when he says without a population that has technical or community college polish, we won’t be able to staff the complex job that companies are bringing to Tennessee.

The Volkswagen plant, with its robotics and completely computer-generated technologies, is just one example of the challenges our entry-level work force will face in the competition to land such jobs. What a registered nursing assistant does today is mind-boggling compared to 10 years ago and warehouse workers are no longer tobacco-chewing dockmen; the logistics of today include such tight shipping parameters they can tell you within 15 minutes of a shipment’s arrival.

While that is exciting and full of promise, a greater emphasis falls on our high schools. Making a 19 on the ACT test now begins in elementary school; it is said that if a third-grader falls behind – no matter the reason – it darn near takes a miracle to catch back up. We’ve got to demand our children learn or else they’ll be swept away or left behind. That may sound cruel or hard but if our millennials are dazzled by what they see today, imagine what awaits the grade schoolers who don’t yet know how to operate an iPad.

Governor Haslam, his cabinet and our Legislature are giving us all the tools we need to “Drive to 55” and the gift of a tuition-free journey through community college and technical venues may be the high-water mark of his administration but we’ve got to meet his expectations by getting enough qualifiers who score 19 and above on national tests.

Governor Haslam has offered The Tennessee Promise. It behooves each of us to make certain our children can cash that check. What a dream, if only we can make it come true.

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