Tennesseans like the ‘Tennessee Promise’ idea of free college tuition, poll shows

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A majority of Tennessee voters support Gov. Bill Haslam’s program to cover a full ride at two-year colleges for any high school graduate, as well as higher education standards, according to the latest Vanderbilt University poll released Wednesday.

“It speaks to the importance of education,” said Josh Clinton, professor of political science and co-director of the poll, which surveyed 1,245 registered voters between April 28 and May 14.

Vanderbilt conducts its poll twice yearly, bookending the legislative session in an attempt to determine how closely lawmakers’ actions mirror voter attitudes and priorities.

According to the poll, 86 percent of voters support Haslam’s free tuition plan, and 58 percent are for the Common Core education standards, which are intended to provide students with the critical thinking, problem solving and writing skills needed for college and the workforce.

The poll was released a day after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Nashville and once again lauded Tennessee for its education reforms and continued academic improvement.

Tennessee was one of the first two states to win the $500 million Race to the Top competition in 2010. Last year, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed Tennessee students leading the nation in academic improvement.

However, the state has been heavily criticized for some of its reforms, such as tying student performance on standardized test scores to teacher licensing.

And during the last legislative session, Republicans — who have majorities in both chambers — and Democrats displayed rare bipartisanship when they voted overwhelmingly to delay the testing component associated with Common Core for one year. Haslam reluctantly signed the measure into law last week.

However, the Vanderbilt poll shows 76 percent of Democrats favor Common Core, and 44 percent of Republicans approve it. The poll also showed 42 percent of tea partiers — some of the standards’ most staunch opponents — also support the higher standards.

The survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points, also touched on other issues like guns, legalization of marijuana and use of the electric chair to execute death row inmates.

Legislation to do away with city and county governments’ power to ban firearms in parks, playgrounds and ball fields failed during the recent legislative session.

The Vanderbilt poll showed 53 percent of voters favor allowing Tennessee residents to have firearms in public parks if they have carry permits.