Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is indicating the time has come to consider upping the level of taxpayer dollars the state spends prepping low-income kids for kindergarten.
The governor stopped short of saying he whole heartedly supports expanding publicly funded Pre-K efforts. But he told TNReport this week that as a result of the state’s ballooning tax collections, discussions of education-spending increases should naturally include pumping up early childhood learning, as well as more funding for a number of other government-funded education projects.
“We are looking at a lot of different things, from expanding our higher ed system to providing more access to community colleges and technology centers,” Haslam told TNReport after a dedication of Cummins Falls State Park.
“And I think Pre-K is one of those things we should be evaluating (for) its effectiveness to decide if we should expand it,” he said. “We have to decide, like everything else, ‘Is it worth more investment by the state?'”
With state revenue collections already $413 million higher than expected this budget year, the governor said he’ll spend time this summer analyzing where in education to put more money.
But Haslam side-stepped questions about how he would try to sell an expansion of the Pre-K program to conservative Republicans, who have for years opposed expanding it on the grounds that the program does little to improve at-risk children’s long-term academic performance, and there are other more demonstrably worthy areas to put taxpayer resources.
“It’s questionable whether we should be funding it at all,” said Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who serves as the Senate Government Operations Chairman.
Pre-K’s total pricetag in the coming budget cycle is $91.4 million, with the state paying $88.7 million of that, according to state budget documents.
Bell said he opposes “putting more money into a program that does not have proven results by the state’s own studies.”
“If we have extra money, which it looks like we might, let’s put it in the K-12 classrooms,” he said.
A state-commissioned study released last year indicates the effects of Tennessee’s Pre-K program diminish by third grade. Meanwhile, a Vanderbilt University study says the state’s Pre-K students showed an average gain of 82 percent in early literacy and math skills.