State lawmakers moved into phase two of the special session on education reform Tuesday, taking up Gov. Phil Bredesen’s legislation to ensure more Tennesseans graduate from college.
Only 44 percent of students enrolled at four-year state schools eventually get degrees — only 12 percent at community colleges — and the governor favors fixing this problem by tying state funds to graduation rates. State higher education money now is doled out based on the size of an institution’s enrollment.
“We're going to put the money, as I think the taxpayers would expect us to do, with the organizations that are trying to get things done, which is to graduate the students,” Bredesen said.
The legislature finished the first week of the special session Friday night by mandating the use of student test scores in deciding whether public schoolteachers are given tenure after their first three years on the job and in annual evaluations of teachers and principals.
That enabled the governor to strengthen the state’s application for $485 million in President Barack Obama’s signature education program — the Race to the Top initiative. A competition for grant money, the program is aimed at spurring states to enact reforms. The deadline for entries in the contest was Tuesday, and 40 states asked for shares of $4 billion. Obama said Tuesday he will ask lawmakers for an additional $1.3 billion for the program.
Now, lawmakers will focus on higher education reforms in the special session. Bredesen wants to delegate remedial coursework to two-year schools and make it easier to transfer credits from community colleges to four-year schools.
He also proposes to bolster the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory by spending $6 million to improve the school’s research programs in science, technology, engineering and math.
But the main reform is changing the state higher education funding formula to emphasize graduation rates.
Bredesen said he’s looking to phase in the changes to give institutions time to adapt, and he doesn’t expect any school to go out of business for failing to keep up.
“I think there probably would always be a safety net that they don't absolutely fail, but I can easily imagine some institutions becoming smaller than they are today. Or probably more likely they'll find a new president who will do the job in the institution. We spend a lot of money on higher education in this state and we ought to be putting it to the best effect.”