Stateline Story

Model Policies Help South Recast Image

Once regarded nationally as branches of a regional backwater with few high-paying jobs or modern conveniences, several Southern states are now seen as political trailblazers, leading the way with innovative education, healthcare and economic development policies.

Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina are all in the forefront of education reform; Tennessee has pioneered a new approach to health insurance coverage; and Virginia portrays itself as a model for high tech development.

The migration of educated people out of the region - the "brain drain" - has stopped. Better educated workers have attracted better jobs with higher wages, and this in turn has led to more tax revenue for the states.

Let's take a closer look.

Florida, for example, is the first and so far only state with a statewide school voucher plan. "A-Plus Plan for Education," the brainchild of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, subsidizes parents who wish to remove their children from a school that fails the state's standardized achievement tests. If a school fails, it has the next two school years to raise its scores above passing. If it does not, that school's students can transfer to better schools with the help of vouchers to offset tuition costs.

In the first year of widespread testing, two years ago, 78 Florida schools failed.

This past school year, all of the schools that had to pass to avoid losing students did so. The number of students on vouchers stayed at 52, the children from two Pensacola schools that were awarded vouchers last year. The schools that needed to pass did so well that the state is now considering raising minimum scores.

Florida test scores have improved so much that Bush's budget is being strained by too much of a good thing. The $60 million in bonus money budgeted to reward schools that dramatically raised their test scores isn't enough more money will be needed.

"We're beginning to prove that every child can learn.The minute we create an accountability system where there's a different consequence between mediocrity and improvement, good things happen," Bush told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Florida plan is being challenged in court, but is proceeding during the litigation.

Texas is also committed to education reform. Jeb Bush's brother, Republican Gov. George W. Bush, inherited some forward-looking education policies and in 1995 began pressing the legislature for far-reaching changes in teaching, accountability and standards. For the most part, he got what he wanted. The reforms toughened the schools' policy on bad behavior and truancy, ended social promotion, and increased local control of schools.

Texas also wants every student to read at grade level by third grade, and to continue to read at or above grade level throughout his or her school career.

Georgia is yet another southern state active in education reform. The current governor, Roy Barnes, a Democrat, has continued his predecessor's strong education record, which produced the HOPE scholarships that pay in-state college tuition costs for students who maintain at least a "B" average.

Barnes called for reform in his education address earlier this year, lamenting Georgia's continued presence near the bottom of the nation in many important education statistics, including SAT scores and percent of children attending college.

"Georgians demand better than that," he said. "It's time to stop making excuses and start doing something about (education)."

Barnes is focused on overhauling Georgia's elementary and secondary school system. His education reform program, which went into effect on July 1, has a lot in common with the Florida program, stressing school accountability and rewards for teachers for meeting goals. But rather than giving vouchers to students at under-performing schools, Barnes' plan calls for the state to take control of any school that fails for two consecutive years.

The threat of state control was better received than the idea of school vouchers by teachers unions and other education groups. But the program is still in its infancy, and the question still remains if it is enough of an incentive to improve performance.

Georgia's reforms have even included a way to improve discipline. Parents whose children are chronic behavior problems may be fined if they refuse to go to school to work with principals and administrators to fix the problem.

North Carolina is also an education pioneer, but has taken a different road. Rather than focusing on school performance as much as Georgia, Florida or Texas, the Old North State has emphasized preparing young children to enter kindergarten.

Led by Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, the state began "Smart Start" in 1993 to make sure that preschoolers arrived in kindergarten ready to learn. The program helps provide childcare and pre-K learning to all children in the state.

The program gives money to counties, which may then use the money to address child development issues.

It has been a huge success by all accounts, and has been honored as an "Innovation in American Government" by Harvard University.

Karen Ponder, the executive director of the North Carolina Partnership for Children, which administers the program, told stateline.org that the most innovative thing about the Smart Start program was the way it involved communities in the process."We've literally met with every state to talk about what we've learned," Ponder said. "It's been somewhat of a laboratory for the rest of the country."

She said South Carolina, Kentucky, Hawaii, Kansas and Florida have all begun programs based on Smart Start.

Hunt has also begun a new push to improve North Carolina's primary and secondary schools, which have been at the back of the pack even while the state university system flourished.

The program, "NC Schools: First in America 2010," sets forth lofty goals for schools, including improving SAT scores, safety, school accountability and workplace readiness.

Healthcare is another area where a southern state is attracting notice. Tennessee - Vice President Al Gore's home state - has been a leader in insuring its citizens. TennCare, the state's healthcare plan, replacing Medicaid for uninsured or uninsurable people, insures 1.3 million of the state's 5.5 million residents and costs $4.3 billion annually.

Its purpose is to make sure that every Tennessee resident has health care. The program uses managed care organizations as opposed to the old fee-for-service structure to provide care. That is what makes the program unique, Lola Potter, TennCare's public information officer, told Stateline.org.

"We think TennCare has been a success in terms of serving its members," Potter said. "No other state is doing it it's fairly bold."

The program hit a snag early on. The money hospitals were getting from it wasn't enough to cover their costs, let alone make a profit. But recent fixes backed by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist and dubbed TennCare II seem have given the program new life.

Fixes included a $290 million increase in the program's funding and stricter HMO admission requirements.

Virginia is leading the way in another area - attracting technology-based companies. America Online, the world's biggest internet service provider, with 23 million users, is headquartered in Reston, a small town 15 miles from the nation's capitol. And its presence has been a magnet for other high tech firms.

Angelo Ioffreda, AOL's Director of Internal Communications, said access to Washington, D.C.'s nearby resources including the federal government and the region's three airports were important in the company's decision to locate in northern Virginia.

Low property taxes and access to a highly educated workforce were also important factors in AOL's decision, Ioffreda said.

Faith Denault, the company's vice president of facilities and business services, said the state's posture toward AOL was the deciding factor in where it located.Denault said AOL also looked at Georgia and North Carolina, but chose Virginia because of the state's willingness to work with the company.

Governor Jim Gilmore trumpeted the state's involvement in the Internet and vice versa in his State of the Commonwealth address on January 12.

"No state is better equipped and more prepared to maximize the freedoms of the Internet than is Virginia. Half of the world's Internet traffic travels through Virginia. Northern Virginia is one of the world's most wired regions," Gilmore said.

Tags: Education, Health