Gov. Bill Haslam does not see the state’s pre-kindergarten program as potentially “the largest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of Tennessee,” as one lawmaker put it this week, and the governor says the state should simply stay the course on its Pre-K program.
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, this week seized on a recent report from the state comptroller’s office assessing the merits of pre-kindergarten education.
Dunn drew from language in the study, performed by Strategic Research Group, based in Columbus, Ohio, that said data on student performance in grades 3-5 show no significant effect from a student having attended a pre-kindergarten program.
No overall differences were found between Pre-K and non-Pre-K students in First Grade, although again, Pre-K students who experience economic disadvantage tend to perform better than their non-Pre-K counterparts. However, 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.
The report concluded, however, that students who attend Pre-K have better outcomes in kindergarten assessments than students who don’t and that “the objective of Tennessee’s Pre-K program — school readiness — is being met.”
Haslam seems unconvinced that the matter is resolved. He called for more information and noted that the state won’t have more money to expand Pre-K soon, anyway.
“I think the comptroller states a little bit more of a mixed message,” Haslam said Wednesday in Murfreesboro, where he signed a bill allowing Hope college scholarships to be awarded in the summer.
“Vanderbilt had a study out earlier in the year that showed a more positive spin on it. I think it’s all the more reason we should keep doing what we’re doing now — keep Pre-K in place, let’s do the homework.”
The value of Pre-K in educating the state’s children has been hotly debated in recent years. Many advocates for Pre-K say the state should be offering universal Pre-K classes. Others are not convinced and point to studies that show some at-risk students see some improvement in the short term but that there is little long-term advantage to Pre-K education.
“My suggestion would be that about a year from now when we have a little more data, let’s get a great survey, track that, and then make some decisions off of it,” Haslam said.
The state currently has a voluntary Pre-K program where communities and school leaders can decide at the local level if they want Pre-K classrooms. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen spearheaded the Voluntary Pre-K Act in 2005 and wanted to expand Pre-K instruction to a universal program. But economic factors limited the scope of the plan. Haslam campaigned for the status quo on Pre-K when running for governor, while his Democratic opponent, Mike McWherter, proposed universal Pre-K.
Haslam held an official bill signing ceremony Wednesday at Middle Tennessee State University on his bill to allow college students to apply Hope scholarships to summer classes, which had previously not been allowed. It was one of a handful of education reform measures on his agenda, along with teacher tenure changes and lifting the cap on charter schools. All three were approved by the Legislature.
“If you’re a student who currently is having to take out a loan or work an extra job to pay for your summer school courses, like several students I talked to this morning here at Middle, this is significant,” Haslam said.
“I know a lot of people have been working on it for a while.”
Haslam and other education leaders said the extension of the scholarships to summer classes are a natural step in line with the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010, which emphasized the need to keep students moving toward college graduation.
“We think it’s important for this reason: When any institution starts to do something, whether it’s a college, a state, a hospital, a business, you need to make certain your financial incentives are in line with what you’re trying to do,” Haslam said.
“Last year, when the Complete College Tennessee Act was passed, it encouraged students to be about the business of graduating. There was a recognition there was a cost to the student, a cost to the family, a cost to the state when their focus wasn’t on how we complete what we came here to do.”
Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, spoke at the signing ceremony.
The lottery move will presumably keep students on track for graduating as quickly as possible. The step comes with the decision, however, to limit the use of the Hope scholarships to 120 credit hours. Haslam said the cap is necessary because the scholarship fund, which comes from the Tennessee Lottery, is being stretched thin.
The ceremony included several state lawmakers, who were welcomed by MTSU President Sidney McPhee. The event was held at the school’s new education building.