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Pre-K Effectiveness Limited; Candidates Still Support It

Some gubernatorial hopefuls want to expand the state-funded early education program, but others say now’s not the time.

The educational benefits of Tennessee’s Pre-K program are small and short-lived, according to a report commissioned by the state comptroller and education department.

Those findings echo two previous installments of the “Assessing the Effectiveness of Tennessee’s Pre-Kindergarten Program” series produced by an Ohio-based firm, Strategic Research Group.

“As previous reports in this series have found, there are positive effects on these outcomes associated with participation in Pre-K, although they are for the most part limited to economically disadvantaged students… and are evident primarily in Kindergarten and first grade,” according to the study.

The report also stated that “the magnitude of these effects is small,” and that positive benefits “associated with Pre-K participation tend to diminish over time.” Once the children reach second grade and beyond, their academic performance tends to fall in line with that of their peers who didn’t attend the state’s Pre-K program, according to the study.

Candidates in both parties running for governor say they want to expand the program, which currently enrolls 18,000 children and is budgeted for about $93 million in the coming fiscal year.

Tennessee has spent about $335 million to fund Pre-K education since it was first launched as a pilot program in 1998, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

The program, which is meant to give children from poor families a head start in learning, is estimated to cost almost $92,955,000 in the 2010-11 school year. More than $86 million of that would come out of the state coffers, with about $6.6 million from the federal government. The state’s total education budget is $5.3 billion.

Calling Pre-K a “home run” of an education program, Democratic candidate for governor Mike McWherter told advocates gathered at the Capitol for a panel discussion on issues affecting Tennessee kids that the strategy behind the program is to “capture those kids at an early age and foster a love for learning in them.” That in turn “will carry them forward throughout their entire careers,” he said.

McWherter promised to continue funding the program if elected, adding that it ought to be made larger.

Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, a Republican, and former Democratic House Majority Leader Kim McMillan both said they support government-funded Pre-K efforts, too. McMillan also said she’d would support enrolling more children if she’s elected.

Congressman Zach Wamp, a Republican from Chattanooga, said he is a big supporter of early childhood programs and said the state has to do more to support it, but didn’t elaborate on what.

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey expressed doubt that the early education program is worthy of additional funding and expansion in the current revenue climate.

“I’ll be right upfront with you. I don’t think that universal Pre-K is the highest and best use of our money here in Tennessee,” said Ramsey.

Andrea Zelinski can be reached at andreazelinski@tnreport.com.

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