Smith wants 'investment in education'

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   An investment in education will fuel Tennessee's economic rebound, according to gubernatorial candidate Dr. Charles Smith.
   "We've lost our competitive edge, and we've got to be smart enough to be competitive," said Smith. "We are losing the investment we made in education so many years ago."
   The "Smith for Governor" tour bus brought the former Chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents and his wife Shawna Lea to Elizabethton Tuesday morning as part of a 95-county campaign tour. Smith will challenge for the Democratic nomination for governor in the Aug. 1 state primary.
   Smith served seven years as state Commissioner of Education in Ned McWherter's administration. He was an architect of the "21st Century Schools" program designed to revamp the state's K-12 education system.
   The Sparta native frequently referenced the methods of his former boss as how a governor should successfully set the agenda for the state.
   He also felt that if Gov. Don Sundquist's administration had done a better job selling voters on why the state needed a new tax structure that included an income tax, the state might not be facing the budgetary turmoil of today.
   "If you lead with tax revenues and say it is for the purpose of balancing a budget, it is dead on arrival," said Smith. "If we had defined the product, I think we would be in a different situation."
   From 1983 to 1994, the state built a reputation as strong supporters of K-12 and higher education thanks to McWherter and former Gov. Lamar Alexander, he said.
   Smith said the result was unprecedented economic growth in the state.
   The state's past five years of budget bickering and a lacking commitment -- in both funding and recruiting -- to public education was threatening to undo the positive gains the state made during the mid-1980s and 1990s.
   "The talk today is Tennessee is in a tailspin, and industry doesn't want to come here," he said. "If you look at the eight years Ned McWherter was governor, we gained in our gross income in comparison to the national average.
   "In the past five years, we've dropped down to around 88 percent (of the national average)."
   Smith spent over 30 years in the University of Tennessee system, and also held editor positions for four Tennessee newspapers.
   He said education and economic success went hand-in-hand. He said if elected governor he would change how economic recruiting was done by tailoring a recruiting plan for each community.
   He added that in recent years, "Two attitudes have prevailed in Nashville: Nashville knows best for everyone else's needs and one-size-fits-all for economic development."
   If Tennesseans vote to implement a lottery in November, the revenues should be earmarked to provide college scholarships for academically achieving students and to fund preschool programs around the state, Smith added.
   He said the state of Georgia's Hope Scholarship plan, which dedicated approximately $250 million to provide college scholarships for qualifying students, technology for public schools and funding for preschool programs, was an exceptional model of how to use lottery revenues.
   Smith's strongest competitor is former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, who is making his second run at the state House.
   "We are facing the most difficult decisions we have faced in my lifetime," said Smith. "The bordering states are stealing us blind -- they are stealing our money, our students and our teachers.
   "It comes down to common sense. We've got too many people walking around with briefcases saying we should do this and we should do that."