National politics poisons a good idea from Tennessee

Published 8:44 pm Friday, June 7, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Republicans in Tennessee have, with little fanfare, developed an economic development program that could have enormous impacts for the state’s rural residents. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case these days, national politics make it all but impossible for good ideas to spread from state to state.

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Tennessee’s promising program, begun in 2014, has been a boon to workforce development, making thousands in the state more prepared to work and thus making the state as a whole more attractive to businesses who need more workers. And the program is enormously popular within the Volunteer State. But what our neighbor to the south has accomplished won’t be repeated here in Kentucky — or probably in any other red state — any time soon.

Why? Tennessee’s economic development program is free college.

Because free college is now a lynchpin of many national Democrats’ agendas, Republicans across the country believe they must be opposed to anything even remotely like what Democrats want.

“The way they talk about free college in Tennessee is very different than the way they talk about free college on the Democratic side,” Kim Dancy, assistant director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, recently told Politico. “It wasn’t as strongly associated with Democratic politics at that time. I would be very surprised if a Republican governor was able to do this today.”

That’s just sad.

Tennessee Republicans created a simply amazing program that ought to be replicated at least in other rural states, if not around the nation. When it began, it offered two years of free classes at community and technical education colleges to all high-school graduates, regardless of income. Now, the state has recently expanded the popular program to include any adult in Tennessee who hasn’t already earned a post-high school credential.

“The program has been wildly popular,” according to Politico. “The state’s higher education commission had anticipated just 8,000 adults would apply for the expanded program; 33,258 did. Nearly 15,000 of them enrolled in the first semester.”

Tennessee made it clear from the beginning the program would not be a so-called “handout” — it would be available without income or achievement restrictions, and without requiring anyone to maintain a certain GPA. The state also developed and promoted it as an economic development program, not a social welfare program.

But all of that is really just window dressing — at the core, what Tennessee is doing and what some Democrats are talking about doing is the same thing: Making life better by helping people continue their education.

Does free college help low-income students and provide better social welfare? Absolutely. Is it also a great way to develop the workforce and benefit economic development in rural areas? You bet.

It shouldn’t matter if you like an idea for one reason and I like it for another. If we both like the idea, we should support it together. But our national politics have gone septic and poisoned the well of good ideas.

Our nation has bought the snake oil sold by our political leaders that “we” are the real Americans and “they” have only terrible ideas that would destroy the country. Such malignant lies benefit only the political leaders’ aspirations of power and re-election; they harm our ability to work together and prosper.

National politics poisons a good idea from Tennessee