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

But governor is waiting on next year’s completion of a Vanderbilt study to decide program’s long-term worth for TN

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.

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