Haslam's free tuition proposal echos Bredesen's

Friday, January 31, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 5

NASHVILLE (AP) — A popular Tennessee governor running for re-election wants to create a free community college program. Sound familiar?

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who is up for a second term this fall, proposed the change in his State of the State on Monday night. His Democratic predecessor, Phil Bredesen, made a similar pitch en route to sweeping all 95 counties in 2006.

Haslam's "Tennessee Promise" proposal would cover a full ride at two-year schools for any high school graduate, at a cost of $34 million per year. That's $9 million more than Bredesen's proposal, which would have required the equivalent of a C average to qualify for free tuition.

Despite his landslide win, Bredesen's proposal never gained much traction in the Legislature. A scaled-back version was included into a larger lottery scholarship bill that passed the House, but ultimately failed in the Republican-controlled Senate in 2007.

Bredesen said at the time that his tuition proposal was overshadowed by all the attention paid to a 42-cent tax increase that narrowly passed the Legislature that year.

He was unsuccessful in reviving the tuition proposal over the following three years of his time in office, despite his belief that 2-year college represents a "magic ingredient" for improving Tennesseans' access to higher education.

Haslam touts his plan as the only one in the country that would waive all tuition and fees for high school graduates who participate in mentoring programs.

The plan is a cornerstone of Haslam's "Drive to 55" campaign to improve Tennessee graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.

Haslam said this week that his administration is "committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee."

Bredesen struck similar tones in 2006, saying that "the idea is to give students something to look forward to in this case, a two-year degree that can lead to a good-paying job."

Republicans lauding Haslam's plan said they were encouraged by using $300 million in lottery reserves to create an endowment to fund the program. Bredesen also suggested using lottery funds to pay for his tuition proposal.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, acknowledged after Haslam's speech that his GOP colleagues have been hesitant about spending the lottery reserves in the past.

"But when you have something tangible that's coming from this, and you can set it aside and literally use it forever, then it's something we can live with," Ramsey said.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis and a longtime proponent of using the excess lottery funds to improve access to higher education, said he was pleased with Haslam's approach.

"It's better to use the reserves for that, than to not use them at all," he said.

Not everyone is thrilled about the latest proposal, especially the part that would lower the current $4,000 lottery scholarship amount at four-year colleges to $3,000 for freshmen and sophomores, but increase it to $5,000 for juniors and seniors.

The move is meant to encourage students to consider going to two-year colleges first.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who as a state lawmaker spearheaded the creation of the state's lottery scholarships, said the state should focus on rewarding the highest achieving students "rather than raiding the scholarship fund's surplus to create a new government program."