Tennessee’s Republican governor helps Raimondo pitch free tuition

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at the Tennessee Press Association convention Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Republican governor of Tennessee, a national leader in the push for tuition-free education, joined Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo on Thursday to support her push to launch such an initiative in Rhode Island.

Gov. Bill Haslam, now in his second term leading the Volunteer State, has garnered national attention for Tennessee Promise, a first-in-the-nation program he launched in 2014 that allows high-school graduates to enroll in community or technical colleges tuition-free. This year he is pushing to expand eligibility to all adults.

Raimondo’s proposal, Rhode Island’s Promise, is notably more expansive than Haslam’s – she wants to offer two tuition-free years at all three of the state’s public colleges, including its two four-year institutions. Her staff has conferred with Haslam’s aides as they developed their proposal.

“Quite honestly this is a good idea, and it’s a bipartisan issue,” she said.

On a conference call with Rhode Island business leaders Thursday morning, Haslam said he was spurred to create Tennessee Promise based on forecasts projecting a rapid rise in the share of jobs requiring a post-high-school degree. He said he feared the state’s work force would not be equipped to obtain good-paying work unless more residents furthered their educations.

“Everything Gina’s saying is right,” Haslam said. “She is not making any of that up. It is critical to recruiting the work force that we need, and of the things that we’ve done, I think long-term this might have as big an impact as anything we’ve done.”

Haslam said part of the policy rationale for Tennessee Promise was to make more students, parents and teachers realize the barriers to entry for further schooling were not as high as they thought.

“We came up with the idea that ‘free’ gets everyone’s attention,” he said. “We wanted to shock the system.” He cited “encouraging early data,” noting about 33,000 students have enrolled using the program so far and student loans have decreased by double-digits.

Reporters were invited to listen in on the call with Haslam and Raimondo but could not ask questions, though business leaders on the line could do so.

An independent report on Tennessee’s education efforts, issued earlier this month by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, largely lauded the efforts by Haslam and his predecessors, while also suggesting more needed to be done to make higher education affordable, increase completion rates and close demographic gaps.

“Tennessee has been able to put more of the policy pieces together than most other states,” Joan Finney, one of the report’s authors, said in a statement. “With bipartisan support over the last 15 years, and significant impetus from the business community, Tennessee has improved college preparation and enrollment, provided tuition-free community college, and increased the participation of adults in post-secondary education.”

On Thursday’s conference call, Haslam acknowledged Tennessee Promise remains more limited than Raimondo’s because his does not include four-year colleges. “We didn’t do that, quite frankly, primarily [because] we were trying to figure out how we would pay for it,” he said. “Community college is more inexpensive.”

Haslam said Tennessee’s program does not require students to meet any academic standards beyond graduating from high school and remaining in good standing at their community colleges. That provision was “heavily debated” by lawmakers, he acknowledged.

“That was and is controversial, but my argument was this: if we’re ever going to give students a second chance at doing well academically and getting a college degree or certificate, this was the time to do it,” he said. Students do lose their eligibility if they fail out of school.

Haslam downplayed concerns expressed by Rhode Island’s Promise skeptics, including Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, that its annual cost will significantly exceed the $30 million estimated by Raimondo’s staff. He said Tennessee’s Promise has met its cost projections despite higher-than-expected enrollment, and has not required major increases in the schools’ budgets to meet demand, though it did take them time to adjust to the new students’ needs.

He similarly dismissed worries that taxpayers would wind up funding the educations of workers who quickly leave the state.

“Do we take some risk that we’re educating students that are going to end up living somewhere else? Maybe,” he said. “But I’ll take that chance and I’ll bet we come out way, way, way ahead just with the fact that we can offer people a lot more realistic chance for a good-paying job when they’re done.”

Also on the call was AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, a strong supporter of Haslam’s education efforts, which also include a mentoring program and a goal of having 55% of residents obtain a college degree or certificate by 2025.

“This is about building an attractive business climate rather than a policy that’s designed to improve individual quality of life or promote social justice or fairness,” Phillips said. “I’m all for quality of life and justice and fairness, but this is clearly a program that is designed with business needs at its core.”

Thursday’s conference call came as Raimondo continues to face resistance to her plan in the General Assembly, most notably from Mattiello. The speaker’s top 2017 priority is a five-year phaseout of the municipal car tax, which would cost $220 million a year; Raimondo has countered with a more modest car-tax cut that would cost about $60 million a year.

Raimondo emphasized Thursday that she is not backing off the push for Rhode Island’s Promise. “This is my top priority,” she said.

Meanwhile, both proposals’ prospects have been complicated by an ongoing slump in state revenue. The General Assembly is expected to approve the 2017-18 state budget by the end of June.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook