Despite expressing a disinterest in expanding Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten enrollment eligibility until the program’s merits are appraised, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has requested $70 million in federal funds for early childhood learning.
However, instead of using that funding to expand the state’s existing pre-k program, the state Department of Education would pass the funds to Shelby County and Metro Nashville schools.
If the state is awarded the full amount — the maximum amount of the federal funds a state can receive — the grant money would be used to produce 400 new pre-k slots in Nashville in 2015 to be maintained through 2018 and 1,000 new seats in Shelby County. With the addition of matching local public and private funding, there would be $109 million for creating thousands of new slots and improving the nearly 3,000 existing seats.
Supporters of pre-k claim the programs are a good investment, but there is still quite a bit of skepticism among Tennessee politicians, particularly in the General Assembly’s GOP supermajority.
Preliminary results of the Vanderbilt study released last August appear to show that measurable school-performance gains pre-k children post over their peers who didn’t attend pre-k tend to diminish in short order. By the end of the kindergarten year, the Vanderbilt study suggests there are no longer “statistically significant” differences between pre-k participants and non-participants.
Haslam has said that he won’t decide on whether or not to expand the state’s early education program until the final results of the Vanderbilt study are ready. Those results are expected some time in 2015, according to the governor’s office.
While Tennessee Democrats typically voice support for expanding pre-k, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh is concerned that singling out just two of the Volunteer State’s 95 counties to receive federal funding could open the state up to a lawsuit. According to Fitzhugh, taxpayer financed education funding is supposed to be allotted in an equitable manner for each district.
“No matter what source, it seems to me you put $70 million in the pre-K school program for two counties, you’re probably going to have to put some like amount or some reasonable amount for the other 93 counties. And you don’t have the luxury of federal funds,” Fitzhugh told the Tennessean last week.
Shortly after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Tennessee in early September and pitched the expansion grants, the Tennessee Department of Education announced that it would be submitting a grant proposal. Haslam assured Tennesseans his administration was not actually considering an expansion of the state’s early education program until the Vanderbilt study on the long-term effectiveness of pre-kindergarten programs was finished.
This proposal was just a placeholder so the state didn’t miss out on possible federal money, Haslam said.