Gov. Bill Haslam will receive one of the nation’s most prestigious education honors for his policy work to expand college access for Tennessee students and prepare them for the workforce.

The Republican governor, who will finish eight years in office next January, is the 2018 recipient of the James Bryant Conant Award, which recognizes outstanding individual contributions to American education.

Haslam is scheduled to accept the award next month in Washington, D.C., during the national forum of the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that helps governors, legislators, and other state officials develop education policies.

Announcing its decision on Tuesday, the commission cited Haslam’s leadership to help students be job-ready through his Drive to 55 initiative. The program aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with degrees or credentials after high school to 55 percent by 2025.

Haslam also spearheaded Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, two college scholarship programs that offer two years of tuition-free education to high school graduates and adults. After Tennessee pioneered those efforts, 18 states created similar programs.

In addition, Haslam’s home state has seen academic gains in its K-12 schools since he became governor in 2011. The Republican built on the plan he inherited from his predecessor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, after the state won a $500 million federal Race to the Top award. From 2011 to 2016, Tennessee was among the fastest improving states in America on the Nation’s Report Card. And last school year, the state’s high school graduation rate rose to a record-high 89 percent.

Gov. Bill Haslam visits with Rutherford County students at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro in 2017.
PHOTO CREDIT: TN.Gov

“Gov. Haslam’s unwavering commitment to educational attainment — and providing all students with the opportunity for a quality postsecondary education — is admirable,” said Jeremy Anderson, the commission’s president. “The Drive to 55 and programs such as Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect exemplify his visionary leadership and set the bar for excellence in education around the country.”

The award is named for a co-founder of the Education Commission of the States.

The most recent Tennessean to receive the honor was William Sanders, the statistician and researcher who developed Tennessee’s system known as TVAAS for evaluating teachers and schools. Sanders accepted the award in 2015.

Other past recipients include former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, American educator and Memphis native E.D. Hirsch, children’s television icon Fred Rogers, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is also a former Tennessee governor and U.S. education secretary.