Rumor has it Capitol Hill Republicans might be eying the state’s early childhood education program for the economically disadvantaged as a place to potentially cut spending — or to downgrade it as a long-term budget priority.
But GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam believes that idea may be shortsighted.
“I would hate to see the Pre-K we have now cut,” he told reporters after touring Pre-K classrooms in Nashville Tuesday.
At the same time, Haslam isn’t prepared to jump headlong into the budget debate and start offering up specific ideas of his own where state government ought to scale back spending. He put forward little in the way of new suggestions for addressing the state’s budget problems — other than to say it doesn’t seem wise to dig too deeply into state government reserves, or rely too heavily on the federal government to bail the State of Tennessee out.
“While it’s not fair for me to say ‘don’t cut Pre-K’ without saying what I would, one thing I’d be really strong on is to say I don’t think we can keep taking from the rainy-day fund because we’re living off that so much — that and the stimulus plan — so much now. That would just make it that much worse next year.”
Gov. Phil Bredesen has proposed raising the sales-tax rate on expensive purchases to help plug a budget hole $105 million larger than anticipated.
Legislative Republicans staunchly oppose the tax increase. But they, too, have for the most part been unwilling yet to unveil any specific cost-cutting or revenue-boosting alternatives.
House Republicans earlier this week said they might be thinking about making changes to how the state’s preschool program for children of poor families is funded.
Republican Caucus Leader Glen Casada reportedly said the party might be considering funding the program with one-time money, which would fix the state’s immediate budget dilemma but push more problems into next year. However, neither the House nor Senate Republican caucus have release detailed plans for this year’s budget.
Marsha Edwards, CEO of the Martha O’Bryan Center in Nashville, said the state covers part of the cost of running the program at her facility. She said it costs the center $121,000 to run each of its three Pre-K classrooms a year. She said the state pays $65,000 and the center raises the rest.
“If it’s non-recurring and we can’t be sure that from year to year whether we’re going to have a Pre-K classroom, we can’t build anything of stability,” said Edwards.
The Martha O’Bryan Center describes itself as a multifaceted foundation that works with children and adults in poverty, aiming to transform their lives through work, education and employment.
A report released in March that was commissioned by the Tennessee comptroller’s office indicated that the benefits of the $86 million state-funded Pre-K program are probably short term and “tend to diminish over time.” By third grade little difference can be detected between low-income children who participated in the program and low-income children who did not.
“Pre-K participation is associated with small but reliable effects on student outcomes in Kindergarten and First Grade, primarily among economically disadvantaged students, although by Second Grade the difference between Pre-K students and a reasonably comparable group of non-Pre-K students is negligible,” according to the study, which was produced by an Ohio-based firm, Strategic Research Group.
“This report provides the first indication, however, that some positive effects associated with Pre-K participation may extend beyond the second grade, as one effect identified in previous reports did appear to persist into Third Grade. However, on the whole, the differences between Pre-K and non-Pre-K students in Grades Three–Five are negligible,” the report concluded.
Andrea Zelinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.