By: Sen. Bill Frist, M.D.
In my 12 years of service to Tennesseans in the United States Senate, I learned that progress often comes from taking advantage of moments when the stars align around a specific goal. In Tennessee, one of those moments is upon us, as for the first time in over 25 years the stars have aligned to make real, meaningful improvements to Tennessee’s education system.
Today, there are a number of factors coming together to create a truly unique opportunity for improving our schools. Earlier this year, Governor Bredesen’s Tennessee Diploma Project went into effect, for the first time raising Tennessee’s academic standards to a nationally competitive level. At the same time, national foundations, who for far too long have ignored Tennessee, have started to make major investments in our schools. In the last six months alone, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $90 million to improving teacher effectiveness in Memphis and made several other smaller investments across the state.
Perhaps most importantly is the consensus that has been built over the past year about how to improve Tennessee’s education system. For the past year, I have chaired the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). Led by a 25-member steering committee of top education, political, and business leaders from across Tennessee, SCORE has gathered input from all the state’s key education stakeholders by holding 72 town hall meetings across the state, hosting eight statewide meetings with leading education reformers from around the country, and conducting hundreds of one-on-one interviews.
In late October, SCORE released a final report entitled “A Roadmap to Success: A Plan to Make Tennessee Schools #1 in the Southeast Within Five Years.” This report laid out the specific things each group – whether it be legislators, teachers, parents, or the business community – needs to do to improve our schools. Over 300 individuals offered feedback on this final report, which represents a bold consensus among the state’s education stakeholders about a detailed plan for improving Tennessee’s education system. Never before has there been so many different groups come together and agree about the way forward.
As members of the Tennessee General Assembly meet today in a special legislative session focused on education, I encourage them to take advantage of this truly unique moment in our state’s history. Now is the time to enact truly meaningful education reform. While the timing of the special session is in part driven by a desire to make the state’s application for federal Race to the Top funds more competitive, many of the ideas proposed in the current legislative package represent ideas that have been developed over the past year through SCORE’s inclusive process and wide-ranging outreach.
Specifically, SCORE’s final report laid out seven policy recommendations for the state legislature. These seven items make up a large portion of the proposals being recommended by Governor Bredesen and being considered in the General Assembly. Passing these items will not only ensure that Tennessee is competitive for hundreds of millions of federal Race to the Top dollars, but it will also ensure that Tennessee undertakes much needed education reforms that have been identified as necessary by many of Tennessee’s teachers, principals, superintendents, and maybe even more importantly, by parents and grandparents. From the classroom to the boardroom, everyone has an interest in seeing our schools improve.
The stars have clearly aligned in Tennessee to create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve our schools. My hope is that this legislative special session will bring everyone together to take advantage of this truly unique moment. If we all rise to the occasion, I am confident our schools will significantly improve and the children in our state will have a brighter future.
Bill Frist served as U.S. Senate Majority Leader from 2003- 2007 and is Chairman of Tennessee SCORE.