Huffman Departure Elicits Mixed Feelings Among TN Politicians

With the announcement that Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s oft-criticized education chief, is not planning to return to Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet for a second term, questions surround who will fill that role next.

But while many in the General Assembly feel a Volunteer State native would be best suited to the job of leading the state’s public education system, Haslam says his primary concern is finding the best person for the job regardless of where they’re from.

“I always start with get the best person, but obviously it’s a home-field advantage to be from here,” Haslam told reporters after his speech at the annual Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development in Nashville Friday.

Although Huffman was a lightning rod for critics of the state’s recent education reforms, Haslam said he would have liked the former Teach for America executive to stick around. However, Huffman felt it was best for him and his family for him to return to the private sector, Haslam said.

While the governor doesn’t “think it’s appropriate to talk about possible successors at this point,” he said they’re going to use the “same process” they use to find the best people for every vacancy. Haslam added the process is a little different this year because he knows more people than four years ago when he first took office as governor.

Right now, Haslam said he will first begin to approach people for advice, and next see if people are interested in the position. The governor said he’ll be looking for someone “committed to having high standards,” who also understands the process the state is going through in reviewing those standards.

Haslam recently announced a review of the state’s academic standards with the stated goal of ensuring Tennessee maintains high standards in education, while at the same time mitigating the controversy that surrounds Common Core, the national academic standards the state has been implementing over the past several years.

The Tennessean recently reported some names for Huffman’s successor that have been floated by political observers. Those names include Kathleen Airhart, deputy Tennessee education commissioner, Stephen Smith, assistant commissioner of policy and legislation, and a few school superintendents, such as Jim McIntyre of Knox County Schools or Lyle Ailshie of Kingsport City Schools. Jamie Woodson, a former state senator from Knoxville who now heads the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, and Candice McQueen, dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education, are two names that have also been discussed as having an outside chance.

Several members of the General Assembly — from both parties and chambers — are saying the new head of the Volunteer State’s public education system ought to be a native Tennessean.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris told TNReport that Tennessee has “a lot of homegrown talent.” Haslam shouldn’t “have to look far to find somebody who continues to work with us to raise standards in Tennessee,” said Norris, R-Collierville.

State Reps. Johnnie Turner and G.A. Hardaway, both Memphis Democrats, also told TNReport they’d prefer the new state education chief be someone who is already a Tennessean. While an outsider might bring different perspectives to the discussion, Turner said, there are often people from within the state who might be aware of those other perspectives — but “because we have our Tennessee roots, we would not give our constituents — other Tennesseans, the feeling that an outsider is coming in, telling us what to do.”

Now would be the time to “get it right, as far as competence and communications,” said Hardaway. He added that appointing someone from Tennessee — where there are “plenty of intelligent, competent leaders in the educational arena”– would help improve the communication aspect.

And it appears the desire for better communication from the executive branch on the issue of education is a bipartisan one.

Rick Womick, a rural Rutherford County representative who is challenging Republican state Rep. Beth Harwell for her post as House speaker in the next session, said last week that he hopes Haslam takes “into consideration the wishes of the legislature since we will ultimately have to pass judgment on his education agenda.” The departure of Huffman “is long overdue and allows us to come together to focus on how to rectify the education debacle we have experienced over the last four years in Tennessee,” Womick said.

“I think what the governor’s done is given him an opportunity to bow out and resign without being fired so he can press on, and go wherever he wants to go without having that on his record,” Womick told TNReport last week. “I think that’s noble, but at the same time the real question is who is the governor going to put in his place?” he said.

Womick was one of 15 Republican legislators to sign a letter calling for Huffman’s resignation over the Summer.

And Mike Sparks, a Smyrna Republican who also signed the letter calling for Huffman’s ouster, said last week the education chief’s resignation is “good news,” and it meant Haslam “has seen the backlash of it.”

But Franklin Rep. Glen Casada, last session’s GOP Caucus chairman, said it’s “to be expected” and he doesn’t believe it’s related to Common Core. “Many of the commissioners promised the governor one term,” and it’s “typical” for commissioners to exit for private sector jobs at the end of a governor’s first term, he said.

The position of education chief isn’t the only recently announced Haslam administration vacancy. Haslam also recently announced the departure of Economic & Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty, who, according to a press release, will be returning to the private sector after he c0-chairs Haslam’s inauguration committee. The ECD chief’s name has been discussed as a possible Republican gubernatorial contender for 2018.

Alexander Not Planning to Press ‘Grand Swap’ if Re-Elected

Last week Sen. Lamar Alexander said that if he’s re-elected he’ll once again start pushing legislation to grant the states more control over education policy and public-school management decisions.

If he wins his Senate race, and Republicans gain control of the United States Senate, the two-term incumbent will likely helm the upper chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Alexander, who himself served as U.S. Department of Education secretary in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, made the announcement after Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam released information about a review of Common Core that his administration is launching.

Returning control over education to the states has long been an issue that Sen. Alexander advocates. Going back at least three decades to his time as the Volunteer State’s governor, Alexander has said he favors a “Grand Swap,” in which the states have full control of education and the federal government assumes all the responsibilities for administrating Medicaid.

In a 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Alexander wrote that he first proposed the “Grand Swap” to President Reagan, though it ultimately went nowhere.

In a joint session of the General Assembly in January 2013, shortly after announcing his decision to run for a third term in the U.S. Senate, Alexander pitched several ideas for dealing with unfunded federal mandates that he said are soaking up money that states could use for other pressing needs, like education.

Alexander promised the Tennessee Legislature he would introduce legislation in Congress “to enact the Grand Swap I proposed to President Reagan in the 1980s.” He described the legislation in straightforward terms: “The federal government (would) take all of Medicaid, and the states take an equal amount of other programs more appropriately funded and managed at home, such as education and such as job training.”

At the time, the Maryville Republican acknowledged to reporters after his speech that it would be a long slog uphill to get legislation like that through the Democratic Party-led Senate. But he also said the chances of its being taken seriously were “improved by the fact that there’s a lot of attention on how the Medicaid program is bankrupting the states.”

“Medicaid is going to ruin the states,” Alexander said to reporters. The former University of Tennessee president added that the high cost of Medicaid to the states was the “main reason” for rising tuition prices. “It’s squeezing the life out of our colleges and universities in Tennessee.”

But while Alexander indeed appears to be pressing for more state control on education, he has yet to carry through on his pledge to try and release the states from responsibility for handling Medicaid. Since he made the remarks to state lawmakers, he’s filed no “Grand Swap” legislation.

A spokesman for Alexander, Brian Reisinger, said the “Grand Swap” isn’t on his to-do list, though it “continues to represent his ideal vision.”

“If Republicans take over the majority in the Senate, Sen. Alexander wants to focus most immediately on three issues: repairing the damage done by Obamacare, fixing the No Child Left Behind law, which has been overdue for reauthorization since 2008, and reauthorizing the Higher Education Act,” wrote Reisinger in an e-mail.

The healthcare reform plan that seems most likely to come out of a GOP-led Senate, developed by Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Richard Burr of North Carolina, would keep some of the GOP-preferred aspects of Obamacare — such as allowing children to stay on their parents insurance plan through 26 — but would change or completely scrap several others.

One of the biggest changes would be to alter federal Medicaid funding by essentially giving the states a set amount of block-grant money to use in the most cost-effective ways to provide services to the state’s enrollees. The amount of money a state receives would be determined by the number enrolled in Medicaid.

Reisinger indicated that Alexander sees no conflict between the senator’s idea to put all Medicaid decisions and costs in the hands of Washington D.C., and the Republican plan to give the states a set amount of money and full discretion of policy decisions.

“As a firm believer in the Tenth Amendment, Sen. Alexander believes if the federal government isn’t going to manage and pay for its own Medicaid program, states should have as much flexibility within Medicaid as possible,” Resinger wrote.

Haslam Administration’s Academic Standards Review Run by Common Core Advocates

Gov. Bill Haslam has promised a “full vetting” of Common Core, and this week he announced that a process for undertaking that exercise had been established by his administration.

A press release issued by the Haslam administration outlined a multifaceted “public review of the state’s K-12 academic standards in English language arts and math.”

But the group of people the governor has designated to supervise the vetting process doesn’t appear to include many Common Core critics. However, the list of instructional experts, teachers and local education officials who’ll handle the review does include several who are supporters or have played roles in Tennessee setting in motion the controversial academic-performance measurements.

Common Core was designed in 2009 through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers for the purpose of encouraging interstate uniformity in education priorities.

“Academic standards are typically reviewed in Tennessee every six years,” according to the Haslam administration press release issued Wednesday. “With these standards now in their fourth year, and with the discussion happening in Tennessee and across the country about Common Core state standards, Haslam believes this is the appropriate time to take a fresh look.”

The release quoted Haslam as saying, “This discussion is about making sure we have the best possible standards as we continue to push ahead on the historic progress we’re making in academic achievement.”

Of the six committee chairs and advisory team leaders the Haslam administration named to “gather input to make recommendations” and “propose possible changes to the State Board of Education,” four have connections to the Common Core implementation efforts:

One of the committee members, Susan Groenke, a University of Tennessee associate professor in English, has made published statements indicating she’s in the past been concerned about the pace of Common Core standards implementation. Groenke hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of this story’s posting.

Whether the appointees hold opinions for or against Common Core “wasn’t a criteria we considered,” said Ashley Ball, a Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman. “We provided names to the (State Board of Education) based on both geographic representation and content expertise.”

State Board’s ‘Appointments’ Were Actually Made by Haslam Administration

The administration’s press release indicated that the governor “asked the State Board of Education to appoint” the committees and advisory teams.

But Dr. Gary Nixon, the executive director of the State Board of Education, described the appointment process as driven more by the administration than as an independent effort by the 9-member board.

Nixon told TNReport that he and Fielding Rolston, chairman of the board, were asked to review a list of 40 or so names sent to them by the Tennessee Department of Education. Nixon said they did, and then “gave it the go-ahead.” There was no formal vote taken by the board on the matter.

“We reviewed the process,” Nixon said. “We looked at the appropriateness from the three Grand Divisions, and different grade levels, large and small schools, rural and urban schools. So we’ve got a good representation of all of the mixes that are out there in the school systems and the schools across the state.”

More Common Core Ties in Common

Also as part of the process of review, the administration plans to launch a website to take public input on Common Core. The as-yet-unveiled website is billed by the Haslam administration as a place where Tennesseans can go to “review each current state standard and comment on what that person likes, doesn’t like, or would suggest should be changed about that particular standard.”

An Atlanta-based nonprofit organization, the Southern Regional Education Board, “will collect the data in the Spring and then turn that information over to be reviewed and analyzed by professional Tennessee educators.” The administration press release described SREB as a “a third party, independent resource.”

The Southern Regional Education Board was, according to its website, founded in 1948 and serves 16 member states including Tennessee. The organization describes itself as committed to “improving quality of life by advancing public education.”

SREB’s list of financial supporters is made up of private and public funding sources, including the U.S. Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Pearson Foundation. Bill Gates is one of the country’s foremost and influential proponents of Common Core.

The Pearson Foundation is the nonprofit wing of a worldwide education materials publisher, Pearson, Inc., which sells Common Core-approved textbooks and training manuals. Last year Pearson paid a $7.7 million settlement to the New York State attorney general because it was found to have earned considerable financial benefits from the nonprofit foundation’s promotion of the Common Core products that the for-profit wing was selling.

The Haslam administration indicated it has no worries that SREB’s independence on Common Core matters might be called into question as a result of the pro-Common Core advocacy and financial interests of some of its funders.

“(Tennessee) has a 20-plus year history with SREB, and any organization like it is going to receive funding and grants from educational foundations,” a spokesman for Haslam said in an email to TNReport.

However, SREB has been involved itself in encouraging Common Core implementation efforts throughout the states it serves. A report released last winter, due to be updated soon, outlines progress 15 different states are making toward putting Common Core into effect. Tennessee, the report stated, was considered to be “partially aligned” with Common Core — meaning that it had “modified…state assessments in some way to align them more closely to the Common Core.”

The report noted that all the states it looked at were “working to foster the use of high-quality instructional resources and materials aligned to the Common Core.” Tennessee’s effort in that respect was said to be “strong.”

SREB’s report indicated that one of the obstacles to full and successful implementation of Common Core in the states it examined has been that oftentimes “educators and the public are still confused about what the new standards really mean: What are the specific changes that teachers and students should be experiencing?”

“This confusion frustrates educators in their efforts to implement the standards and evaluation systems with fidelity,” the report continued. “State board members, governors’ staff and others noted that a lack of effective messaging about what the standards are and why they are valuable has hampered reform.”

What’s also needed is “steady, long-term funding and policy support for (states’) efforts to foster successful implementation of the new standards and related initiatives,” the report concluded.

After TNReport left a phone message with SREB, a spokeswoman wrote in an email that the organization “will serve as an independent, nonpartisan advisor on the process,” and details about its role in Tennessee’s standards review will be released next week.

Resistance to Common Core has been mounting over the past year among Tennessee GOP lawmakers, particularly in the state House of Representatives. Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga have indicated an interest in scrapping Common Core in favor of the state developing high-quality standards of its own design. Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin made the cause of thwarting Common Core a central pillar of his primary campaign this year, which he won over a local school board official who supported the national standards package.

The governor’s proposed timeline calls for the committee recommendations to be made to the State Board of Education at the end of 2015.

Haslam Administration Proposes Pre-K for Some

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.

Momentum to Cast Off Common Core Growing

Tennessee’s Republican House leadership appears united behind the notion that time has come for Common Core to go.

“I think Common Core will be repealed in the next session, and I think the state absolutely must do its own standards, and make those standards tough and real,” Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga told TNReport on Monday.

McCormick added that he believes the national standards — created in part by the National Governor’s Association and backed by the Obama administration and Microsoft founder Bill Gates — has “become more of a distraction” than anything else.

Calling the controversial interstate math-and-English standards system “a discredited idea at this point,” McCormick said, “The well has been poisoned on Common Core.”

It is time to “get rid of it and start over again,” he said.

McCormick favors scrapping Common Core in favor of a homegrown system — a view that looks to be shared by republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, who recently told the nonprofit education-focused news site Chalkbeat that she thinks the Volunteer State is fast approaching the point when the state tackles the task of developing its own standards — with the goal of making them “the best standards in the nation.”

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada has for some time been an outspoken opponent of Common Core. He made his dislike of the system a key issue in his recent primary battle in Williamson County, in which he promised that doing away with Common Core will be one of his key legislative priorities in 2015.

Opposition to Common Core has continued to intensify across the state, with the most recent Vanderbilt Peabody poll showing a sharp decline in teacher support for the standards. Last session the General Assembly voted to delay implementation of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessment — the test most closely associated with the CCSS .

Gov. Bill Haslam, a one-time firm backer of the standards who has touted education reforms pushed by his administration as instrumental in the state’s fast improvement in education, has even acknowledged that the time has come for a full vetting and wide-ranging discussion of the controversial national education standards.

Haslam has said that while he’s willing to talk about issues people are having with Common Core, he’s committed to ensuring the state does not “back up” on “having higher standards.”

Haslam: Wide-Ranging Common Core Discussion Coming Soon

Gov. Bill Haslam indicated Wednesday that he wants to have a constructive public conversation about concerns Tennesseans are having with Common Core.

But the governor reiterated that he’s committed to making sure the state doesn’t slip in its commitment to carrying forward with stricter measurements of K-12 academic performance.

“What we are not going to back up on in Tennessee is having higher standards,” he told reporters at the Capitol following a swearing in ceremony for Herb Slatery, the state’s new attorney general.

And Haslam said he still supports the controversial nationally focused education-standards system, which appears to be growing in unpopularity among Tennessee teachers. There’s also a sizable contingent of Republican lawmakers in the state’s General Assembly who’ve committed themselves to thwarting it.

“Common Core allowed Tennessee to raise their standards, which everybody thinks is a good thing,” said Haslam. “There is some disagreement about where they came from and how they originated; I think there are some misconceptions, and I also think it is a little irrelevant.”

But he also acknowledged there’s a need to address the strong current of public distrust.

Common Core, which deals with math and English, was developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. It’s also backed by the Obama administration and has received financial backing from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who recently called it “a very basic idea that kids should be taught what they are tested on,” and added that having every state individually develop its own standards in those areas doesn’t make much sense anymore.

Haslam said he wants to establish a policy-discussion forum on Common Core that provides “everybody a chance to have some comment on it.”

“We are trying to figure out the appropriate vehicle to do that, and we will come back to you soon with how we propose to do that across the state,” the governor said.

Haslam Promises ‘Full Vetting’ of Common Core as Teachers Appear to Sour on Standards

A new survey gauging the mood of Tennessee public school educators indicates a growing number are casting a jaundiced eye toward the state’s controversial English and math standards assessment program.

The survey, conducted by Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, shows that in 2014 only 39 percent of teachers support Common Core. That’s a significant drop from the 60 percent who voiced support in 2013.

Conservative Republicans have long been aiming criticism at Common Core, which is advocated by the National Governors Association and the Obama administration. But the Vanderbilt survey would seem to indicate suspicion of the program is spreading roots across Tennessee’s political landscape.

Last week Gov. Bill Haslam indicated he favors a “full vetting” of Common Core going forward in order to “let people have a chance to talk very specifically about what they like and what they don’t like about those standards.”

“We’re going to, on a very specific basis, look at the standards,” Haslam told reporters on a conference call Thursday. The standards have been in place for four years, long enough now to have an informed discussion about what “might be lacking,” he said.

But the governor indicated that while he hasn’t yet fully analyzed the survey in detail, a cursory examination doesn’t lead him to believe the results indicate an irreversible entrenchment of opposition to Common Core among teachers. There were “several reasons” for why the teachers voiced opposition to the standards, Haslam said.

“Some of those had to do with the use of that data for evaluations, which is really a separate issue than standards; some of it had to do with the amount of testing that happens in our schools, which really has nothing to do with Common Core; and some of it is teachers saying, ‘I’m not certain these are the right standards to teach,'” Haslam said.

According to the findings of the survey, in its second year of existence and completed by about 10,000 teachers in both rounds, there was “no single, simple explanation for this shift,” though a strong connection between opposition and poor implementation of standards was apparent. Also, teachers unhappy with evaluations were found to be more likely to oppose the standards, as were teachers unhappy with their career.

However, the survey showed no apparent connection between opposition to the standards and poor student response in the classroom. Likewise, response bias was not found to be “an important factor.”

But while the survey findings support Haslam’s view that evaluations and assessments likely play a big role in teacher dissatisfaction, he still reiterated the comments made to reporters following his education summit last week — the standards need a “full vetting,” which represents a departure from his stance earlier this year: a delay in the implementation of the standards would slow the momentum of the state’s improvement.

“You hear everything from standards are too difficult to they’re too easy, and what we’re committed to doing is to get a full vetting of those standards,” Haslam said. “And then get a chance to make certain that we have the right things in place.”

Quality of State’s Workforce Questioned

One of the messages that came out of Gov. Bill Haslam’s education summit last week was a complaint from employers that’s not entirely new: It’s hard to find good help these days.

Amid discussion about the state’s education system, a few attendees said issues preventing a labor-ready workforce ran a little deeper than what the reforms of the past few years have been getting at. In a nutshell, there’s a significant element of Volunteer State’s workforce, especially at the entry levels, that can’t do basic high school math, don’t communicate or take directions very well, have trouble passing drug tests and oftentimes exhibit a general aversion to hard work.

Greg Martz, a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce board member and plant manager at DuPont, said the problems facing employers are fairly straightforward. The younger generation, in particular, lacks “interpersonal skills,” which he in part blames on their overuse of texting and other modern phone technology. And they also tend to have trouble solving real-world problems, which he theorized might have something to do with an overemphasis in public-school classrooms on rote memorization rather than critical thinking.

Ken Gough of Accurate Machine Products in Johnson City agreed.

“Math skills are very weak, analytical skills are very weak, the ability to solve problems, very weak. Drug testing? It’s a real problem with the entire workforce,” said Gough, a voice for Tennessee’s small business community at the governor’s “Progress of the Past Present an Future” conference. “Just the understanding that they have to show up every day for work, on time and ready to go to work, those are things that quite literally have to be taught.”

He added that while some of these problems are “not primarily a school problem,” schools could help provide solutions.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, said he’s heard it all before. A year ago, Gardenhire told the crowd of conference attendees, he made inquiries among representatives of Japanese-owned companies doing business in the Southeast as to what could be done to encourage the hiring of more Tennesseans.

While he had expected to hear issues with infrastructure and taxes, Gardenhire said it came to a “unanimous three things” that weren’t those at all.

“Number 1 was your workforce can’t do ninth grade math. Second, your workforce can’t pass drug tests. And third, your workforce won’t work. They don’t have a work ethic,” Gardenhire said he was told.

Gardenhire said all those are components of what he’s telling kids around Chattanooga when he goes on local motivational-speaking tours. He said he informs students that what they need to do to achieve success in life is “learn math, stay off drugs and show up on time for work.”

The invitation-only education forum was called by Haslam and the Republican speakers of the General Assembly, and featured several presentations on the reforms enacted over the past several years and discussion of the state’s education system by all of the major stakeholders in education, including lawmakers, teachers, administrators, parents and business leaders.

Haslam said that the plan was not to come out with some statement from the group at the summit, but that this was just the “beginning of a discussion” about what issues face Tennessee, how we got to where we are and what some “potential paths” are for the future of the state’s education system.

During one of the summit’s discussion periods, Randy Boyd, chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, emphasized the need to focus on “talking about K to J, not K to 12,” in order to “be at the point where high school graduation equals college readiness.”

“Our alignment needs to be aligned with the workforce needs, not necessarily with anything else,” Boyd said.

Haslam Wants to ‘Hold Our Place in Line’ for Federal Pre-K Expansion Dollars

The Tennessee Department of Education is sending a letter of intent to apply for a federal pre-kindergarten expansion grant. But it’s just a placeholder to ensure access to future federal funds, Gov. Bill Haslam said this week.

Haslam said he’s still not ready to start advocating the state expand its existing pre-k program, which now serves about 18,000 mostly lower-income kids.

His administration’s letter to the Obama administration is “basically a way for us to save our place for an application down the road,” the governor told reporters in Knoxville Wednesday.

The announcement that the state intended to apply for the funds comes on the heels of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s visit to Tennessee as a part of his 2014 Back to School Bus Tour to discuss education progress in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. One topic discussed at several stops was the recently announced expansion grants, funded as part of President Obama’s “Pre-k For All” initiative.

At an event in Chattanooga this month, Duncan said he hopes Tennessee will sustain its impressive climb in education quality. He said applying for the federal pre-k grants would bolster that effort, and “could mean as much as $70 million over the next four years” for the Volunteer State.

Haslam said he won’t be inclined to push for expanding pre-k in Tennessee until the final results are in from a Vanderbilt study on the long-run benefits that early-education provides students.  “You look at  academic progress that’s being made and the social progress that’s being made by the child, and then you make a decision based on that,” he said.

The governor said he’s “ultimately a data-driven person.” If the results of the study call into question pre-k’s overall effectiveness, he indicated he’ll be considering whether education funds would be used better elsewhere — such as improving teacher pay or expanding funding for higher education.

Those results are expected sometime in 2015.

“First, we get the date off the study, see the impact, and then decide, in a realm of possibilities for the state to fund, Should that take priority?” Haslam said.

Feds Pitching Expanded Pre-K in TN

Arne Duncan wants more children to have access to taxpayer-financed early education programs.

During a stopover at Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center for Children on a three-state Southern swing, the U.S. secretary of education talked up pre-kindergarten as a key component of later student development. He said on the federal Department of Education blog that he was trekking through Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee to get a first-hand look at government-funded early-childhood-learning programs in action, and “discuss progress, promise and results.”

As in the past, Duncan praised reforms pushed by Tennessee Gov.  Bill Haslam, who — on education at least — is among President Obama’s favorite Republican governors.

Duncan said he’d like to see Tennessee continue working to burnish its new national reputation for innovative thinking on education policy by working closely with the federal government on fresh policy initiatives — like the state did when it went all-in with the president’s Race to the Top program.

In particular, the nation’s education czar said he’s hopeful Tennessee will choose to compete for a portion of the $250 million in federal preschool-development grants the feds are holding out as an incentive to encourage states to sign more kids up for early education programs.

The application deadline is Oct. 14.

Should Tennessee submit a winning grant application, “it could mean as much as $70 million over the next four years,” said Duncan. And that could go a long way toward shortening the waiting lists kids face to get into good pre-K programs, Duncan told a town-hall-style gathering Tuesday.

“Too many children start kindergarten a year to 18 months behind,” he said.

The grants Duncan is pitching would help prepare states to participate in President Barack Obama’s proposed “Preschool for All” program, “a federal-state partnership that would promote access to full-day kindergarten and encourage the expansion of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families,” according to a U.S. Department of Education news release issued last month.

While Duncan urged those in attendance at the Chattanooga event to spread the word about the value of pre-K, he also noted that academic success for young people is never guaranteed without sustained involvement from moms and dads.

“Whether it’s early childhood centers, whether it’s elementary schools, whether it’s middle schools, whether it’s high schools, there are no successful educational schools or programs that don’t have a very serious parental engagement component,” Duncan said.

Because of the importance of parents in education, the preschool grant initiative will only invest in programs that are “very serious, very strategic, very intentional” about improving parental participation in their children’s schooling, Duncan added.

Former Democratic state senator Andy Berke, who is now mayor of Chattanooga, also spoke about the importance of starting the education process with younger children. Berke touted Chattanooga’s investment in “Baby University,” a program intended to teach new parents how to be better parents, as well as the city’s request for a “Head Start” expansion grant.

But there’s a contingent of Tennessee politicians, particularly in the Republican-dominated state General Assembly, who remain unconvinced of the merits of early education — and they can point to independent research that tends to back them them up.

“The evidence shows that pre-K does not deliver as promised, and I’d be very hesitant to take money from the federal government to start a program,” Knoxville state Rep. Bill Dunn told TNReport Wednesday.

For starters, Dunn, a member of the House Education Committee, worries that there’s never any guarantee federal dollars won’t start drying up down the road, after the state is already committed to a program and it develops constituencies that’ve come to expect its services. It’s a similar concern GOP lawmakers in Tennessee voice  with respect to Washington, D.C.’s promises that it’ll be paying most of the tab for Medicaid expansion.

But beyond that, Dunn said there are clear indications pre-K isn’t the best place for the state to be targeting taxpayer resources so as to give Tennesseans the best “return on our investment.”

The state would be much better off spending money on improving the education environment and learning opportunities for older kids, like in kindergarten and first grade, said Dunn. The results are better, and with less cost, he said.

To back his claims that pre-K is proving less than effective, Dunn points to the preliminary results released about a year ago from an ongoing, long-term Vanderbilt study on how pre-K impacts student performance in later years.

Results from the Vanderbilt study released in August 2013 showed that “achievement measures observed at the end of the pre‐k year had greatly diminished by the end of the kindergarten year and the differences between participants and nonparticipants were no longer statistically significant.” Strikingly, the report also noted “a marginally significant difference” on reading comprehension “with nonparticipants showing higher scores at the end of the kindergarten year than (pre-K) participants.”

The report also noted “a significant difference that favored the nonparticipant group” on one of the study’s measures for “combined achievement in literacy, language, and math.”

In an interview with The Tennessean last year, Mark Lipsey, director of Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute, which is conducting the pre-K investigation for the U.S. Department of Education, said that while “the whole story is not told yet,” there are indications from the ongoing study involving 3,000 children that “early achievement results have diminished considerably after the pre-K year, so that there is not a significant difference really between the kids who went to pre-K and the kids who didn’t.”

A multi-year study commissioned by the Tennessee Comptroller that was concluded in 2011 examined “whether there is evidence to suggest that Pre-K participation is associated with a positive effect on student performance in Grades K-5 relative to students who did not participate in pre-K.”

According to the pre-K effectiveness report summary submitted to the state comptroller, “no overall differences were found between Pre-K and non-Pre-K students in First Grade.”

The authors of that report wrote that children “who experience economic disadvantage tend to perform better than their non-Pre-K counterparts,” but also added that “this same pattern is not consistently observed for students who do not experience economic disadvantage, and the initial advantage attenuates and is largely diminished by the Second Grade.”

“Among students who do not experience economic disadvantage, the initial advantage of Pre-K is less evident, and the models suggest that they may experience slower academic growth over time,” according to the study.

Dunn said Tennessee education policymakers need to be taking note that studies appear to indicate that by some measures prekindergarten children aren’t just breaking essentially even with the non-preschool kids, “they actually scored worse.”

Gov. Haslam has indicated that he intends to keep funding the state’s preschool program at the same levels, and will consider any possible changes after the long-term study is complete, Dave Smith, Haslam’s spokesman, said in an e-mail. Those results are expected sometime in 2015.