Education at forefront

Governor unveils bold new plans at Chamber Legislative Breakfast

Gov. Phil Bredesen laid out plans for the special session on education when he spoke to the Legislative Breakfast sponsored by the Blount County and other area chambers.

Photo by Jolanda Jansma

Gov. Phil Bredesen laid out plans for the special session on education when he spoke to the Legislative Breakfast sponsored by the Blount County and other area chambers.

Gov. Phil Bredesen wants to start a new school for science, engineering and energy at the University of Tennessee that will partner with the Oak Ridge National Lab and eventually grow UT into a Top 25 research school in the country.

The governor, keynote speaker at the Legislative Breakfast sponsored by the Blount County Chamber of Commerce, Knoxville Chamber and Oak Ridge Chamber, made the announcement during his presentation. The “world-class graduate energy sciences and engineering program” at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory coincided with two of the four items on the legislative agenda of the chambers: Education and Economic Development.

That wasn’t the only topic on the governor’s mind. He also said lawmakers need to put policies in place so that the state can be in a better position to receive what he hopes is between $250 million and $500 million in federal Race to the Top public education dollars.

In a special called legislative session focusing on education that began Tuesday, Jan. 12, the governor said on Friday that lawmakers also would be focusing on how to make it easier for credits to transfer between the State Board of Regents system of community colleges and the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees universities.

Bredesen said legislators also will be asked to create law so that value-added test scores from students in K-12 can be used to evaluate effectiveness of teachers and principals.

“This upcoming session will be a combination of one of the most important and most difficult as my time as governor,” Bredesen said. “We will go into special session that will focus on higher education and K-12. I have spoken with Speakers Ramsey and Williams, and we are committed to making the session productive. I think we’re going to get important things done for education. During the time I’ve spent as governor, I’ve tried to make education the most important priority. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

The governor said starting a new program at the University of Tennessee would capitalize on the relationship between UT, the Oak Ridge National Lab and Bechtel. The governor said it would be an opportunity for the school to take a leap forward as a research university.

“It’s been a great partnership, and this is taking it to the next step,” he said. “Let’s establish a world-class energy and sciences program at UT working with Oak Ridge to make it an extension of UT.”

The governor said this is the kind of model seen at the University of California at Berkley in partnership with the national lab at Lawrence Livermore.

“This would open the door to 400 new graduate students who we will recruit across the state, nation and world,” Bredesen said. “We could double the UT Knoxville research funding from $200 million to $400 million.”

Bredesen said the project could move UT into the category of a Top 25 research university. There is legislation that needs to be passed to create the new program but the eventual benefits could be substantial and could increase the opportunities Oak Ridge has for driving the economy throughout the state, he said.

The governor said there are funds in the current budget, about $6 million, that he wants to use to help start the new program at UT.

The governor was optimist about how quickly the program could be up and running. “I think you could see students coming in next year,” he said.

‘Race to the Top’ funds?

The governor said currently there are plenty of challenges facing the state’s education system. For every 100 students who enter ninth grade, 67 will graduate high school.

“That alone is a problem. Of these 67, ultimately 19 will graduate with an associates or bachelors degree,” he said. “We have got to do better. It’s an issue we’ve got to address in our state.”

Bredesen said the federal government set aside $4.35 billion in stimulus money for what it calls “Race to the Top” funds to help states improve public education. “Tennessee, I believe, is one of the states that can be competing for that money,” he said.

The governor said states must have strong education policies in places at the time they submit their application, which was part of the catalyst for the special legislative session. “Those states are the ones most likely to be considered for the money,” he said. “I really want to focus on getting changes in place during the special session. Our Race to the Top application is due Jan. 19 at the U.S. Department of Education.”

The funds are one-time money that wouldn’t be used for recurring expenses, the governor said. “This kind of money could be transformational and make a huge difference.”

The governor said while the money could be significant, the possibility of getting that money isn’t the sole reason for making changes.

‘Value-added’ assessments

Among issues to be discussed during the special session are using the value-added assessment results for students in K-12 to evaluate teachers and principals and not just for tracking student performance.

The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System measures the district, school and teacher effects on student academic gains rather than emphasizing achievement scores at a single time. The data comes from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAPS) and has been controversial as a measure of teacher performance based on a number of factors.

Bredesen said he wants lawmakers to allow value-added assessment results from each K-12 student to be used for evaluating teachers and principals and not just tracking student performance.

“What I’ll talk about in special session is an asset we have that we don’t utilize as much as we should, the value-added performance data base,” the governor said Friday. “We need to unlock the data and utilize it to better evaluate teachers and principals. The quality of the teacher is so important to the success of the students. Get the right teachers and give them the support, and our students are going to succeed.”

The governor said some teachers will have “understandable anxiety” and not support the idea. “I think it’s time to do it. This will be controversial, and some people will be lobbying against it,” he said.

Lining up college requirements

Bredesen said the second half of the special session will deal with higher education. “The world has changed so much,” he said.

The governor said years ago people could get a job with a high school diploma and make a good living in a factory, own a home, boat and be in the mainstream. Now it takes more than just a high school education to get a good paying job, he said.

Bredesen said improving the post-secondary education system so that more people graduate with an associates or bachelor’s degree means asking those who have dropped out why they didn’t finish their education. “What is it about the system that so many are falling off,” he said. “Only 12 percent of those who start community college obtain a degree.”

The governor said one way he wants to change higher education is through changing funding formulas. “Now it’s based on enrollment. Putting emphasis on degree-completion would change the focus from filling seats to producing degrees,” he said.

The governor said another area that should be considered is making it easier for credits being earned at community colleges to transfer to four-year schools. “We want to make it more uniform and clear to students which courses they take can be used for credit in a four-year institution,” he said.

The governor said this would do a lot toward encouraging students to use community colleges as the front door to earning an associates degree or to draw them into a four-year system.

Blount Countians react

After the governor’s speech, Blount County folks in the audience commented on the topics. Blount County Chamber board of director’s chair Doug Horn said the new school at UT would elevate the university’s status and eventually lead to more private investment. “This could make a difference as far as location for future jobs,” Horn said.

State Rep. Bob Ramsey the issue in education isn’t about money, but the requirements and expectation of the industries and business community for the future. “As the governor said, this is a new era of requirement and necessary skill for getting employed,” Ramsey said.

State Sen. Doug Overbey said the governor laid a challenge out for K-12 education to qualify for Race to the Top funds. Regarding the governor’s proposed new program at UT, the state senator said this area has long been referred to as the “Resource Valley,” and the new program could make UT a top research university. “It could mean economic activity and jobs,” he said.

Holly Burkett, assistant dean at the Blount County Campus of Pellissippi State Community College, said making changes so that the UT system and the Board of Regents systems work closer would be a good move.

“That is very much needed,” Burkett said. “Make it easier for students to transfer from a community college to the UT system. Students get frustrated when they don’t know if what they are paying for is going to transfer.”

State Rep. Joe McCord said such a change could help make college less costly for students when they don’t waste money taking classes whose credits do not transfer.

“We’ve made a lot of strides, but we still have a ways to go,” McCord said. “Anything you can do to streamline the process, you save money for students.”

McCord said he supports having a top-notch research university at UT. “But I don’t want to see other colleges suffer in the effort to reach that goal,” he said.

Chambers goals

Program moderator Bill Williams, anchor emeritus of WBIR-TV Channel 10, said what state legislators do is crucially important to the business community.

“The issues change as circumstances change. This (Legislative Breakfast ) allows us the opportunity to interact with lawmakers from across the region,” he said. “We need to work together as a region so that we are more attractive collectively.”

Williams outlined the four areas of focus for the three chambers. The chambers’ priorities are education, transportation, economic development and workers’ compensation laws.


The chambers are advocating:

• Rejection of any proposals allowing for election of directors of schools;

• Support implementing state educational standards described in the Tennessee Diploma Project;

• Oppose mandatory merger of school systems within counties;

• Reject mandatory school start dates;

• Restore base funding for public community colleges and universities as soon as economically possible.


The chambers are advocating:

• Tennessee Department of Transportation develop a plan with major milestones to enable the Knoxville Parkway to be open to traffic in the year 2020;

• Request TDOT complete the environmental impact statement as expeditiously as possible and also develop a plan that will allow the final link of Pellissippi Parkway to be open to traffic;

• Widen south route 170 from Southern Route 62 to I-75.

Economic Development

The chambers are advocating:

• Allow for additional and enhanced support of small or start-up high-tech businesses in agricultural science, materials science, media technology, nanotechnology, renewable energy and research and development;

• Reasonable thresholds on business investment, number of jobs, and salaries should be requirements of qualifications for the incentives above.

Workers’ Compensation

The chambers are advocating:

• Implement a more complete correction of the problems caused by the Overstreet v. TRW decision. The “fix” from legislature last year stopped short of returning to the pre-decision state in handling communication with treating physicians;

• Revisit the issues that arose from the Wait v. Traveler’s case as there is likely to be an increasing use of telecommuting and other alternative work arrangements in the future;

• Recommend changes to Sec. 50-6-102 including the definitions of “injury by accident” and “arising out of and in the course of employment.”

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