NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP/WMOT) — Gov. Bill Haslam delivered his State of the State address to a joint session of the Tennessee Genaral Assembly last night.
Haslam presented a $32.7 billion annual spending plan that includes a staffing shake-up at the troubled Department of Children's Services, a heavy investment into construction projects around the state and a large deposit into the state's cash savings fund.
About a third of the governor’s 40 minute speech revolved around the subject of education. Haslam began with a proposal to create a limited school voucher program in Tennessee to allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools.
“I expect this proposal will be hotly debated, but after taking a careful look at the issue and how a program might work in Tennessee, I believe a limited approach that gives more choice to parents and students stuck in difficult situations makes a lot of sense. If we can help our lowest income students, in our lowest performing schools, why wouldn’t we?”
According to legislation filed in the Senate yesterday, the program would be limited to 5,000 students in the school year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 students by 2016.
State Democrats were quick to pan the voucher initiative. House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh delivered his critique of school vouchers in a youtube video released before the Governor spoke.
“This voucher proposal will almost certainly mean a tax increase for our local government, a dramatic decline in public school funding - and most importantly - it will leave thousands of students behind in failing schools. After the disaster of virtual schools, Tennessee cannot afford another step backwards.”
Haslam also announced new initiatives for higher education during his speech. The governor is proposing more than $300 million for improvements on the campuses of Tennessee's colleges and universities, as well as millions of dollars for higher teacher pay.
“Over the past 30 years, rising Medicaid costs have continued to squeeze out other priorities, and higher education is an area that has suffered as a result. With repeated tuition increases year after year, we risk pricing middle-class families out of the market for a college education. We must address costs. We have to make a college education more accessible, and we have to make sure we have quality programs in Tennessee.”
In spite of Haslam’s proposed budget increases for higher-ed in Tennessee, the state’s 2 public systems are warning that students could face additional increases this year of up to 6 percent.