Van Hilleary says education will be top priority

By Julie Fann

Besides assuming a secure stance against a state income tax for Tennesseans, gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary also touts an education program he said is top priority, something he says should have happened in the state a long time ago.
   "Can you imagine where we'd be in this state if we spent half the energy we spent on that fight (the income tax) on improving the way we educate children? Where we would be today? A lot better off ... That has to be the No. 1 priority in the state once again," he told STAR reporters during a campaign stop Friday.
   Hilleary described his goals for education by using no-frills rhetoric and calling for a "hands-on" approach by citizens, a program he calls the Education Corps.
   "The idea being that, one, the governor needs to have a hands-on approach to education if we're going to turn this around; the other idea being that it takes money as well as other things to have a good school system," he said.
   Colleges and universities have a method of donating time and money through alumni associations; whereas, says Hilleary, there isn't a real way for citizens to give back to elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.
   "So I have committed, my wife and I both have committed to work once a month in a public school, and a lot of it will center around the beginning of the year getting the school ready to go in the fall," he said.
   Once people get the idea of it, helping schools will be a year-round thing. Plumbers will repair leaky faucets while others may help a child learn to read, he said.
   "If we're going to raise the quality of our education system in this state, we will have to have community buy-in, parental buy-in to the program. The best schools in the state you'll see already have that."
   Although the state has some great teachers, principals, and school systems, only 25 percent of the state's children read proficiently, and only 17 percent are proficient in math, according to Hilleary.
   Hilleary's brand of reform would involve making sure all school staff are properly qualified and held to a higher standard. Students in lower grades would focus primarily on learning math and reading skills before focusing on other subjects.
   The health care debate in Nashville between himself and Bredesen, Hilleary said, went very well mainly because, at the end, Bredesen dodged a final answer on the income tax.
   "I think taxes are high enough. We do not need an income tax, and this is where Mayor Bredesen and I differ quite a bit. I'm telling you. I take it off the table. It will not happen on my watch. It will not happen. I will not consider it. He does not tell you that," Hilleary said.
   TennCare issues, however, are a different matter. Both Hilleary and Bredesen believe TennCare needs serious reform but, simultaneously, that it also needs to be saved.
   "There's a lot of people that would have had their lives destroyed without it; so we have to save it," he said.
   Hilleary believes restructuring will stop people from coming across the border from other states and signing up for TennCare.
   "We also have to make sure that people that are on it are actually eligible to be on it, and that's not the way it is right now," he said.
   Hilleary believes he is the right candidate to serve as Tennessee's next governor because he does what he says he will do when he's in office.
   "I keep my word, and I don't think that I'm 'way up here', and everybody else is 'way down there'. I think that's some of the problems we've had here lately. I think communication between the governor and the people has been pretty bad the last several years," he said.
   Van Hilleary began representing the state's 4th Congressional District in January 1995.