Legislators can do right thing, readdress tuition bill


By Jeff Keeling

When Tennessee’s commissioner of economic and community development struck a bullish tone on the state’s economy during a recent visit to the Tri-Cities, the role of education rang through clearly. Randy Boyd exhorted local economic development leaders to focus as much on education as they do on things like available land. “Everybody’s got dirt,” he put it. He also touted, with good reason, a spike in college-going rates in the Volunteer State that stands in contrast to a dip in those numbers nationally.

“That should portend well for an educated workforce in the future, which also should attract jobs,” Boyd told a group gathered for the Washington County Economic Development Council’s Milestone Industry Achievement Awards March 22. “The number one reason why (employers) come to Tennessee, or go anywhere, is the talent pipeline.”

Last year, the Tennessee House of Representatives had an opportunity to move the educational attainment needle a bit further in the right direction and broaden the talent pipeline. They muffed it by one vote. Before returning to their districts later this spring, those same lawmakers should get the opportunity to again consider House Bill 675.

The companion of that bill passed the Senate last year, 21-12. It would allow Tennessee students who were brought here as children, undocumented, to qualify for in-state tuition rates. Other requirements apply, including arrival in the U.S. before 2007, a signed affidavit that the student has filed or will file an application to legalize immigration status, and attending Tennessee schools for at least three years prior to graduating.

The fiscal note on the bill predicts increased state revenues of close to $200,000 as enough additional students attend UT and Tennessee Board of Regents institutions to offset tuition decreases for eligible students already attending and paying out of state rates. A two-thirds majority vote in the House Calendar Committee would move it straight to a floor vote.

I learned about the bill late last year from Bowmantown farmer Jeff Aiken, who became president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau last year. The Farm Bureau supports the bill, Aiken said, “ primarily because we believe that a good education cures a lot of social ills.” Anybody who wants an education, he added, should be able to get one as far as the Farm Bureau is concerned.

That makes sense. From a short-term, narrowly self-interested perspective, though, Tennessee farmers could be among those least interested in such a change. They rely on migrant labor to keep their farms operating. A youngster whose tuition rate has just become more affordable – and by the way, these students still wouldn’t qualify for any state or federal financial aid – is less likely to work on a farm.

Such an attitude was pervasive when the prospect of literate, educated African-Americans struck fear in the hearts of many, who were concerned that literate slaves would convince others to revolt. Laws were passed in the mid-1700s, in South Carolina, for instance, prohibiting anyone from teaching a slave to read or write. (Counterpoints to this did exist, with some groups in the South exhibiting some tolerance for slave education.)

Late last year, my 94-year-old grandfather told me of his friendship with an African-American neighbor, Gordon McHenry, when they were growing up in Spokane in the 1930s. McHenry, grandpa said, graduated with him from North Central High School and went on to Gonzaga University before embarking on a highly successful career with Boeing.

McHenry’s 2001 obituary reported that his parents moved to Spokane from Tyler, Texas in 1927, “seeking better employment opportunities for themselves and educational opportunities for their children.”

McHenry earned an electrical engineering degree, with honors, at Gonzaga, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. He became a member of several engineering management teams at Boeing – where in 1943 he was the first African-American engineer hired, Boeing unions having previously hindered the hiring of black engineers – and a pillar of the Seattle community for more than 50 years.

Tennessee surely is home to some modern-day Gordon McHenrys in the form of children of migrants. For those who aren’t citizens, passage of HB675 could allow them to afford a college education when they couldn’t before.

Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire sponsored the senate version and said the bill would have a positive economic impact.

Indeed, college graduates helped by such a law would contribute more effectively to Tennessee’s economy and tax base than they otherwise might. They’d also very likely develop a strong sense of loyalty and gratitude to the state and country that provided them opportunity.

Understandable but largely irrational fears surrounding immigration and security have increased within the past year. I hope they don’t prevent another round of debate on a bill that is economically sound and represents the best of what America is about. I hope the politicians listen to the farmers on this one.


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