Ramsey Cautious on Haslam’s Call for Pre-K Expansion Discussions

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey maintains that he still vigorously opposes taxpayer-funded early-childhood education programs beyond those already offered to “at-risk” kids.

But Ramsey indicated he may be open to getting on board with an effort to expand Pre-K so that more poor children can gain access, an idea Gov. Bill Haslam recently suggested his administration might consider if the state’s revenues continue to grow.

“I hope the governor is not leaning toward Pre-K, universal Pre-K, in the state of Tennessee, but is simply talking about expanding further than we have to make sure we are covering those at-risk kids,” the Blountville Republican told reporters in his Capitol Hill office.

With the uptick in the state’s economy,  Haslam told The Associated Press last month that he is weighing whether to expand the state’s $86 million Pre-K program, which served more than 18,000 children last year.

Pre-K will be available in every county next school year in Tennessee but is limited to at-risk students, defined as those who would qualify for free or reduced lunch.

A state-commissioned study released last year indicates the effects of Tennessee’s Pre-K program diminish by third grade. Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute is currently attempting to “study of the effectiveness” of Pre-K in Tennessee.

“I do believe that any study will show that Pre-K has some effect on at-risk students, but I will never be in favor of universal Pre-K in the state of Tennessee,” Ramsey said. “It is all about limited dollars, a finite pot of money, and how do you best use that money for the best return.”

Ramsey’s comments put him to some degree at odds with staunch opponents of the state’s Pre-K program within the Republican Party, including Sen. Mike Bell, who believes the most worthwhile debate ought to be whether the program ought to be funded at all.

House Rules Committee Chairman Bill Dunn said he believes officials should be thinking “outside the box” about how to improve and better define the goals of existing efforts.

Dunn said he’s inclined toward preferring discussions about keeping kindergartners in the classroom longer during the day, or investing in better reading programs in primary grades.

“I would hope it doesn’t become a discussion of if you’re for, or against, Pre-K,” said the Knoxville Republican. Rather he wants to see “a discussion of what we want to achieve.”

“We have limited resources, and we ought to think this through before we put more money into a system we use out of simplicity,” Dunn said.