TNReport Ceasing Operations

It is with great disappointment that I must inform our readers that won’t be maintaining news gathering operations this legislative session.

Our financial and staffing situations have been difficult for the past year — such that it is no longer possible for TNReport to effectively cover Tennessee state politics at this time.

I’d like to offer my sincerest gratitude to all of you who’ve contributed to our nonprofit journalistic endeavors over the years, both in terms of charitable donations and hard work.

I hope that in time TNReport can obtain adequate funding to restart our efforts.

Mark Engler

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Bulk of Record-Setting Year from Comptroller’s Fraud Hotline Involved Just Two Cases

Of the more than $1.1 million in government-funded waste, fraud and abuse reported through the Tennessee Comptroller’s anonymous tipster hotline last fiscal year, more than 85 percent of that “record achievement” came from just two cases.

One in Benton County and the other in Marion County, they involved more than $960,000 in alleged fleecing of public funds.

The smaller of the two involved nearly a quarter of a million stolen taxpayer dollars from the South Pittsburg Housing Authority and the South Pittsburg Elderly Housing Authority.

According to a “special investigation” report published by the Comptroller’s office last July, “various employees misappropriated at least $228,980” between 2009 and 2014. The report noted that while the two Marion County housing authority programs were “separate legal entities,” they shared the same office space and staff.

“The amount of theft in this case is alarming,” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said in a press release at the time. “While it’s easy to blame the criminal behavior of two individuals, housing authority officials must also take the necessary steps to shore up a number of issues which allowed these thefts to occur.”

In the other case, about $733,000 in “unauthorized administrative disbursements” was uncovered subsequent to investigators probing a Benton County nonprofit that was raking in government money through the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

The Comptroller’s office issued a report in March alleging that managers and employees of ABC Nutrition Program in Camden — a food-for-needy-children program run from a home basement by a woman and her two adult daughters — improperly collected compensation and bonuses to the tune of more than $606,000.

Another $127,000 or so was obtained by ABC Nutrition to pay for “unauthorized construction and improvement disbursements” for the woman’s home, as well as “additional unauthorized administrative disbursements.”

The state Department of Human Services OK’d all the suspect spending, the Tennessean noted in a lengthy story on the case back in July.

Participants in the operations in both South Pittsburg and Camden are facing criminal charges.

“Since its inception (in 1983), the hotline has received over 21,000 notifications, including 951 notifications between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015,” according to an information sheet provided to TNReport by the state Comptroller’s office. “The hotline received 779 telephone calls and 172 submissions through the online reporting website. Of the 951 total notifications, 486 concerned substantive allegations of fraud, waste, or abuse.”

Featured NewsTracker

House GOP Caucus Meeting Planned to Discuss ‘Leadership Position of Majority Whip’

Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives appear to be formally preparing for possible disciplinary action against a ranking member of their caucus.

In a statement released to the media Thursday morning, GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Thompson Station announced that he is requesting a special meeting of the 73-member strong House supermajority when the Legislature convenes next month.

On the agenda would be a discussion about recently reported controversies surrounding Casada’s fellow Williamson County lawmaker, Jeremy Durham, who currently serves as the House majority whip.

“As Chairman of the Republican Caucus, I am calling a meeting to be held on January 12th to discuss upcoming legislative issues and the leadership position of Majority Whip,” Casada said in an emailed statement through the GOP Caucus communications office.

Durham has been drawing scrutiny for a couple of unrelated incidents that occurred in 2013 and 2014.

In one case, Durham was accused by state drug-enforcement police of illegally altering a prescription to obtain medication from a Kroger pharmacy.

A grand jury in Williamson County subsequently refused to indict him when the case was brought before them.

“This situation is from two and a half years ago and was fully vetted by 12 Williamson County citizens who quickly agreed that nothing illegal occurred,” Durham said in response to publicity the case has garnered. “I possessed two additional valid and current prescriptions for the same medication and dosage in question and never attempted to obtain anything I had not been prescribed by a doctor.”

With respect to the other matter, Rep. Durham wrote a letter in March of 2014 urging a judge to consider granting leniency to a local youth pastor who’d pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography.

Following press accounts of the case last week on the heels of stories about the grand jury’s consideration of the prescription forgery accusation, Durham said, “It’s pretty clear that the liberal media is just on another witch hunt.”

In a statement issued early Thursday afternoon, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said:

“I have received a number of requests from members of our Caucus for a full Caucus meeting to discuss Rep. Durham’s status as a member of Leadership. Certainly we will honor those requests and have a meeting to discuss this issue. I’m looking forward to putting this distraction behind us and moving on with the business of the state.”

Education Featured NewsTracker

Haslam Defends UT Chancellor Amid Latest Diversity Office Controversy

Gov. Bill Haslam voiced support Monday for the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, who is facing resignation demands from GOP state lawmakers.

“My view is that you judge somebody on their entire body of work, and if you look at what Chancellor Cheek has done at UT, his entire body of work is impressive,” Haslam told reporters following a ribbon-cutting for a new Under Armor distribution center in Mt. Juliet.

The University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is under fire from GOP lawmakers and leaders in the state Republican Party for recently posting a list of “Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace.” (Note: The original post by UT’s Office of Diversity has been removed and replaced.)

Included was a suggestion that participants at workplace parties refrain from playing “games with religious and cultural themes – for example, ‘Dreidel’ or ‘Secret Santa.'”

“If you want to exchange gifts, then refer to it in a general way, such as a practical joke gift exchange or secret gift exchange,” the post went on.

“Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture,” counseled the diversity office. “Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham are among those indicating they’ll press for Chancellor Cheek’s ouster if he had foreknowledge of the diversity office’s post.

“The Office of Diversity is not welcoming to all and hostile to none as they claim,” Gresham, R-Somerville, said in a press release Friday. “They are very hostile to students and other Tennesseans with Christian and conservative values. By placing a virtual religious test regarding holiday events at this campus, every student who is a Christian is penalized.”

Sen. Mike Bell dittoed Gresham’s indignation.

“This is a public university, supported by taxpayer dollars, where the precious resources provided to them should be directed at what we are doing to give our students a world class education,” said Bell, a Republican from Riceville who serves as Government Operations Committee chairman. “The people want us to ensure that their money is being spent wisely and we have lost confidence that this is being done.”

Ramsey, the Senate’s presiding legislator, took to Facebook on Friday to vent his vexation. “If this post was approved by Chancellor Cheek, he should resign. If not, the entire staff of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion should be dismissed. The reputation of Tennessee is at stake here.”

The Tennessee Republican Party’s state executive committee on Saturday approved a resolution calling on lawmakers and the governor to “eliminate funding for the University of Tennessee Office of Diversity and Inclusion in future state budgets.”

Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, looks to be planning to introduce legislation that’ll do just that.

This isn’t the first time the diversity office has drawn Republican ire. Last summer GOP lawmakers were angered when the office posted a “gender-neutral” language guide for avoiding gender-specific pronouns.

With respect to the diversity office’s future, Haslam on Monday said he continues to see “a role for them.”

The office ought to prioritize “making certain there is equal opportunity for people to attend UT, and graduating, and having great outcomes,” said the governor, who is a Republican and formerly the mayor of Knoxville.

Haslam does think the diversity office “went too far in telling adults how they should act at holiday parties.”

“In this case, I believe they went off into something that they didn’t need to be focused on,” he said.

The UT Faculty Senate is scheduled to meet Tuesday in what’s expected to be a show of support for Chancellor Cheek. Also, legislative education committees are meeting this week on Capitol Hill in Nashville where the matter is likely to get attention of a more critical nature.

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Executive Budget Hearings Planned This Week

Gov. Bill Haslam is scheduled Monday to launch preliminary budget hearings with the various high-ranking administration officials whose departments make up the bulk of Tennessee state government.

Haslam’s Department of Finance staff, led by Commissioner Larry Martin, will assist the governor during the hearings, as will Chief Operating Officer Greg Adams and State Budget Director David Thurman.

As has typically been the case during his five-year tenure thus far, the Republican governor is asking that agency heads calculate spending-reduction “contingency” plans that are lower than last year’s outlays.

In August, Commissioner Martin instructed departments to plot out reductions of 3.5 percent “that will not affect the over appropriations,” wrote Department of Finance spokeswoman Lola Potter in an email to TNReport last week. Agency heads have also been tasked with listing “base reductions that would offset a proposed cost increase request.”

During much of Haslam’s time as governor, the state’s economy performed below expectations, and therefore brought in less tax revenue than anticipated. This year, however, state government is collecting more taxpayer dollars than anticipated when the current fiscal year spending plan was finalized last spring.

Tennessee’s State Funding Board recently estimated that sales and other tax over-collections could total nearly $350 million by fiscal year’s end next summer. Members of the state’s funding board include Haslam, martin, Comptroller Justin Wilson, Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Treasurer David Lillard.

The Haslam administration budget hearings will commence Monday morning and continue each day of the week until completion on Friday afternoon. The proceedings can either be viewed live online or later as archived files.

Below it the schedule:

Monday, November 30, 2015

9:45-10:45 a.m. Human Services
10:45-11:15 a.m. Tourist Development
2:45-3:15 p.m. Financial Institutions
3:15-3:45 p.m. Commerce and Insurance
3:45-4:45 p.m. Economic & Community Development

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

8:45-9:45 a.m. Health Care Finance & TennCare
9:45-10:30 a.m. Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities
1:30-2:30 p.m. Children’s Services
2:30-3:30 p.m. Safety & Homeland Security
3:30-4:00 p.m. Revenue

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

9:45-10:45 a.m. Education
10:45 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Higher Education
2:00-2:30 p.m. Education Lottery
2:30-3:00 p.m. Military
3:00-3:30 p.m. Labor and Workforce Development
3:30-4:00 p.m. Agriculture

Thursday, December 3, 2015

9:30-10:30 a.m. Correction
10:30-11:00 a.m. Environment & Conservation
11:00-11:30 a.m. TBI
1:30-2:30 p.m. Mental Health & Substance Abuse
2:30-3:15 p.m. Health

Friday, December 4, 2015

9:00-10:00 a.m. Transportation
10:00-10:30 a.m. Finance and Administration
1:15-2:00 p.m. General Services
2:00-2:45 p.m. Human Resources
2:45-3:15 p.m. Veterans Services

Featured NewsTracker

Haslam Exits RGA Chairmanship Post

The Republican Governors Association held leadership elections in Las Vegas this week, thus capping off Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s year-long stint chairing the organization.

With the election this month of Matt Biven in Kentucky, there are now 32 sitting or soon-to-be-sitting Republican governors in the United States. That number could change depending on the outcome Saturday of Louisiana’s gubernatorial runoff. (Update, 11/22: Democrat John Bel Edwards won Louisiana’s race for governor.)

Members of the RGA on Thursday picked New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez to take over for Haslam. Martinez won selection as vice chair in November 2014 and faced no opposition in this week’s vote.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who two months ago quit his bid to capture the GOP’s presidential nomination, will be the organization’s new vice chair.

In a press release from RGA, Haslam praised both Walker and Martinez, who’s both the first woman and the first governor of Hispanic heritage to head the association.

Haslam called Martinez “one of the Republican Party’s best leaders” and “an outstanding choice to lead the RGA for the next year.”

“She has made the tough decisions necessary to move New Mexico forward and knows what it takes to win in a blue state, a skill that will be vital to ensuring our governors and candidates have the resources they need to win in 2016,” said Haslam.

Tennessee’s governor also praised Gov. Walker’s record, calling it “enormously impressive.” Haslam noted that Walker, too, has triumphed in three elections in what’s traditionally been a Democrat-leaning state, and has done so by challenging organized labor.

Since first securing the Badger State’s highest public office in 2010, Walker, who survived a 2012 recall effort and won reelection last year, “has not shied away from any battle, even taking on the labor unions, in order to build a better tomorrow for Wisconsin,” said Haslam.

Now that Haslam is no longer leading the RGA, he may feel freer to stump for a GOP presidential candidate of his liking. When asked in the past who he favors in the crowded Republican primary field, Haslam has declined to answer.

“It’s probably best for me to stay out of it until I am either not in this role (as RGA chairman) or that field narrows some,” Haslam told TNReport in August.

Nine of the GOP presidential hopefuls at that time were or are current or past governors. Since then, Walker, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobbly Jindal have abandoned their 2016 Oval Office aspirations. Jindal’s departure was announced just this week.

Haslam complained during a RGA press conference this week that real estate magnate Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, neither of whom have ever held elected public office, seem to be stealing headlines and limelight from the Republican governors in the race.

A poll conducted earlier this month by Middle Tennessee State University indicated Volunteer State opinion is widely split among the GOP field, but Carson is leading with Trump in second. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading among Democrats.

“Benjamin Franklin famously said, ‘Well done is better than well said,'” said Haslam, according to a Politico story published Thursday. “Unfortunately, around the presidential election, we live in a media environment where well said is better than well done.”

Haslam will serve on the RGA’s 2016 executive committee, along with Rick Scott of Florida, Mike Pence of Indiana, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska.

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Harwell: Gas-Tax Increase ‘Difficult’ In 2016

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell says there’s appreciable support among lawmakers for putting more money toward the state’s road budget next year.

“People are interested in our infrastructure — in how much money we are spending, maintaining it, even producing more roads, because they are a huge part of economic development. So I think legislators will be taking a look at that,” said Harwell, a Nashville Republican first elected to the Legislature in 1988.

But it’ll be “difficult” for the General Assembly in 2016 to muster the votes to elevate the per-gallon tax rate motorist pay for gasoline in Tennessee, the speaker told TNReport in Cookeville Thursday evening following a town hall meeting of her Task Force on Rural Economic Development.

Gov. Bill Haslam has been trying to build pressure on legislators the past few months raise the state’s current 21.4 cent per gallon gasoline tax, although he’s yet to say just how much more he thinks motorists ought to be paying at the pump. The diesel tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, and like the tax on gasoline, hasn’t changed since the late 1980s.

Harwell reiterated her view that before any tax increase gets a seriously look by GOP lawmakers, money that was removed from the transportation budget a decade ago ought to be rerouted back toward roads.

In the Senate, Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy favors that as well. The Shelbyville Republican is sponsoring legislation to put $260 million from the general fund into the transportation spending outlay for the next fiscal year.

Typically, the taxes paid on gas and diesel purchases in Tennessee are designated to fund transportation projects. But under previous governors, Republican Don Sundquist and Democrat Phil Bredesen, funding was taken from fuel tax reserves and put toward the general fund.

Harwell noted that the state is currently taking in more sales-tax and other revenues than what the General Assembly and the governor’s administration budgeted for during the last legislative session, which ended in April.

Year-to-date collections for the first three months of the the current fiscal year have been $223.3 million more than the budgeted estimate, according to the latest revenue tallies compiled by the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration. The general fund now has $207.8 million more in it than state government is legally authorized to spend.

“Our revenues are increasing in the state and we have some extra money there,” Harwell said. She suggested the state “restore that money that we took from the Department of Transportation during a rough time in a previous administration — restoring that so they at least have equal footing there in that funding.”

Gov. Haslam has said he’s willing to entertain the idea of rerouting general-fund dollars toward roadbuilding and maintenance. But he also says there’s vastly more transportation infrastructure need than surplus tax-collections can pay for.

Featured NewsTracker

Judicial Advisory Panel Sends Haslam SCOTN Nominee Suggestions

The names of three potential nominees to the Tennessee Supreme Court were sent to Gov. Bill Haslam this week.

All three of the men, who were selected by the Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments, serve as state appeals judges. They are Thomas Radcliffe Frierson of Morristown, Robert H. Montgomery, Jr. of Kingsport and Roger Amos Page of Medina.

Frierson currently sits on the Tennessee Court of Appeals Eastern Section. Montgomery is a judge for the eastern section of the state Criminal Court of Appeals. Page is on the Criminal Court of Appeals Western Section.

Page is 59 years old, Frierson is 57 and Montgomery is 62. All three were appointed to their current appellate bench assignments by Gov. Haslam.

All nine of the applicants for the vacant Supreme Court slot — which was created when Justice Gary Wade unexpectedly retired in September — were asked why they’re seeking a seat on the state’s high court. Below are the responses from the finalists.

Robert Montgomery

“Nineteen years ago, I applied for a position on the Court of Criminal Appeals. While I was not appointed, I knew that if the opportunity ever presented itself, it was my career aspiration to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court. While I did not have then the depth of legal knowledge and experiences that I have today, the same reasons still exist for my desire to serve on the Supreme Court – to serve the public by determining how justice is administered, not just in one courtroom, but throughout Tennessee.

“Over the years as a prosecutor, a trial judge, and appellate judge, I have worked continuously to develop my legal skills and knowledge. I believe that my professional and personal background, my abiding interest in legal concepts, my temperament and collegiality, my attention to details, my willingness to reflect on and make informed and logical judgments about people and the law, and my desire to share my legal knowledge, provide me with the skills to be a valuable Supreme Court member.”

Thomas Frierson

“Serving the needs of others should be a lifelong endeavor. Judges, as public servants, play “a central role in preserving the principles of justice and the rule of law.” Tenn. Sup.Ct. R. 10, RJC Preamble. The opportunity to serve as a member of the Tennessee Judiciary is truly an honor.

“A broad spectrum of legal disputes currently require judicial review. Technological advances, enhanced access to information, and greater societal mobility mandate that a court respond to the call for justice in an effective, timely, and professional manner. Limited government resources must be responsibly extended so as to promote public confidence in the judiciary while preserving the integrity of impartial adjudication.

“I seek the privilege of serving as Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court to address the significant demands of judicial service to others throughout our State. I welcome the responsibilities of fulfilling judicial duties while seeking to promote public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary. No less significant is my focus upon encouraging civility and professionalism in the legal profession.”

Roger Page

“The short and easy answer is that I love the State of Tennessee. I can think of no higher honor than serving the people of our great State as a member of our highest court. Due to my unique educational experience of graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy and the University of Memphis Law School, I have met and now know numerous people in almost all ninety-five counties of Tennessee. In my father’s direct ancestral line, I am a sixth generation West Tennessean. My mother’s ancestral family is from Sevier County in East Tennessee. My sons and grandchildren all reside in Middle Tennessee. If I am selected for this position, I will represent all Tennesseans on the Court.

“I believe that my entire professional life has prepared me for this position. I have vast experience in both civil and criminal matters. As an attorney and judge, I have handled cases involving medical malpractice, personal injury, workers’ compensation, stockbroker fraud, collections, divorces, probate and estates, condemnation, contracts, zoning and real estate.”

Featured NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Haslam, TN Lawmakers Optimistic VW Will Overcome Emissions Scandal

Volkswagen still has vocal supporters in Gov. Bill Haslam and Chattanooga-area lawmakers who joined him outside the carmaker’s Hamilton County plant this week to publicly display faith in the controversy-beset company.

Haslam paid a visit to workers at the southeast Tennessee factory on Wednesday to express his support for their hard work and focus in what are troubling times for the corporation as a whole.

“Everybody knows about Volkswagen’s struggles,” the governor told reporters gathered across the road from VW’s plant following his visit to the facility. “What is getting lost in that story it that there are some men and women right here in Tennessee, in Chattanooga, who are producing a great product, who have nothing at all to do with the problems that have been created. They are doing everything that they can to get past that.”

Haslam said he found it “impressive” that the plant is still “putting out a great product” in the midst of a roiling controversy that began recently when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had discovered about half a million VW automobiles were using emission control systems that were rigged to fool government pollution regulators.

U.S. Volkswagen CEO Michael Horn told a Congressional hearing Thursday that 11 million of the German automaker’s cars worldwide are fitted with emissions-test “defeat” software that can sense the difference between road-driving and lab-operating conditions.

But Gov. Haslam told reporters Wednesday that, “for better or worse,” Tennessee taxpayers are “married” to Volkswagen at this point.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the state of Tennessee divvied out an estimated $358.2 million of the original $577.4 million in incentives that Volkswagen wrangled seven years ago as a condition of building its billion-dollar facility in Hamilton County. The other $219.2 million was supplied from local governments. State and county taxpayers this year financed another $260 million in incentives to win the job of producing a new sports utility vehicle line for VW.

“We have a concern about taxpayer’s dollars that have been invested in this facility, really twice: in the original plant, and the second one when they agreed to build the SUV here,” Haslam said Wednesday. “Obviously, there is a lot of concern that taxpayer’s dollars are being protected. I think the mechanism is in place to do that.”

The governor said he supports enforcing so-called “clawback” provisions that allow the state to revoke and retract taxpayer funding from companies found not to be living up to promises they made in exchange for subsides and incentives.

Still, Haslam said he’s confident VW will ultimately put the current scandal in the rearview mirror and earn its way back as world leader in automotive sales.

Volkswagen is a “solid investment” for taxpayers, Haslam said.

Haslam rejected criticism that the VW scandal — as well as past failures by incentive-receiving companies to deliver on the promise of job-creation, like happened in Clarksville with Hemlock Semiconductor — shows why spending taxpayer dollars on corporate giveaways is a bad idea.

“I disagree with the conclusion,” Haslam said.

The governor said nobody in his administration — nor the administration of Democrat Phil Bredesen, the prior Tennessee governor who offered VW hundreds of millions in publicly financed support to locate in Chattanooga — anticipated such impropriety.

“I don’t think anybody could foresee this happening,” said Haslam. “I would love to know the person who could have told you this was coming around the corner.”

The Republican governor, who prior to winning election to Tennessee’s highest office in 2010 served eight years as mayor of Knoxville, said he still believes the state’s deal with VW was prudent. If the future proves otherwise, “we have the provisions in place to bring the money back,” said Haslam.

“We have to do our homework up front to make certain that we have the provisions in place to protect our taxpayers,” he said. “That’s No. 1. And No. 2 is that we are making wise investments.”

Among the lawmakers who participated in the press event with Gov. Haslam were Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson of Hixson and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, both Republicans.

Watson and McCormick have each been critical of Volkswagen management for flirting with the prospect of inviting the Detroit-based United Auto Workers union into the Hamilton County factory to represent Tennessee workers.

But on Wednesday, both backed Haslam in supporting the company in its time of trouble.

“I think you are going to see a sort of rise-from-the-ashes kind of story that comes out of this plant,” said Watson, vice chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

McCormick seconded that sentiment.

“This is going to be a bump in the road for them. There have been other car companies that have had problems much greater than what is happening with Volkswagen, and they have bounced back fine — and Volkswagen will too,” he said.

Other area lawmakers who attended the event were Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Reps. JoAnne Favors of Chattanooga, Kevin Brooks of Cleveland and Mike Carter of Ooltewah. Favors is a Democrat, the others are Republicans.

A state legislative subcommittee is scheduled to meet Oct. 29 at the Hamilton County Department of Education to inquire into “the financial impact on the state from the Volkswagen misconduct.”

Education Featured NewsTracker

Vanderbilt Study May Strengthen Calls to Defund Pre-K

The General Assembly’s most vocal foe of Tennessee’s publicly funded prekindergarten initiative is hopeful the latest study calling into question the early childhood learning program’s effectiveness will spur conversations about doing away with it altogether.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, described the conclusions outlined in a research report released this week from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College as “invaluable.” While discussion in the past has tended toward whether to expand the state’s $86 million or so a year pre-K program, Dunn argues that the most logical focus of debate now ought to be whether to downsize or eliminate it.

bill dunn 2015
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville

“It is obvious we have spent a lot of money on this program, and the Vanderbilt study shows that in many cases the children who participate actually do worse,” Dunn, a member of the House Education Instruction & Programs Committee, told TNReport. “I think that in the private sector, if somebody were doing something and getting worse and worse results, they would quit doing it. I think if a private individual was spending a lot of money to get worse results, they would quit doing it.”

The Vanderbilt study — “A Randomized Control Trial of a Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Skills and Behaviors through Third Grade” —was initiated in 2009 and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

The study’s authors describe their “rigorous, independent evaluation of the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program” as a landmark analysis.

“It is the first prospective randomized control trial of a scaled up state‐funded, targeted pre‐kindergarten program that has been undertaken,” declared the executive summary of the study’s findings, released to the public on Monday.

The results left the pre-K study investigators like Peabody Research Institute Director Mark Lipsey “stunned” and asking “a lot of questions” about how such a highly touted education initiative could perform so seemingly poorly when put to statistical scrutiny.

Few lasting benefits could be identified for the lower-income children who participate in Tennessee’s more than 900 government-funded pre-K classrooms. Rather, in key assessments of performance and temperament, children who attended pre-K exhibited inferior development over time than their peers who entered kindergarten with no formal academic preparation.

The study did find that at the start of kindergarten, children who’d attended pre-K indeed rated “better prepared for kindergarten work.” They also displayed “better behaviors related to learning in the classroom” and were observed engaging in “more positive peer relations.”

But by the end of the year, kids who didn’t attended pre-K “had caught up to the (pre-K) children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures,” researchers found.

By the time the children were in second grade, pre-K kids and the kids who didn’t attend pre-K “began to diverge.” According to the study, children who attended pre-K began “scoring lower…on most of the measures” than children who did not attend pre-K.

Similarly, the beneficial “behavioral effects” pre-K instilled in kids early on appeared to lag with passage of time — to the point that, “in the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings.”

vanderbilt pre-k study report sept 2015“First grade teachers rated (pre-K) children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” the study’s authors observed. “It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for (pre-K) children in second and third grades.”

By second and third grades both groups of children were rated by teachers as exhibiting similar “behaviors and feelings.”

“There was a marginally significant effect for positive peer relations favoring the (pre-K) children by third grade teachers,” the study determined.

During a panel discussion on pre-K in Nashville last week, one of the study’s primary researchers suggested that, in absence of any systematic analysis of student-performance data or consistent evaluation of individual programs, the promise of pre-K may have been oversold over the years.

Dale Farran, associate director of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute

Undoubtedly, not all pre-K programs around the state, and for that matter the country, are of the same caliber, said Peabody Research Institute Senior Associate Director Dale Farran. From classroom to classroom, “teachers were doing vastly different things,” she said.

“We are pushing the benefits of pre-K without taking the time to define what we really mean and worse, to determine if what we implement has the outcomes we have promised,” said Farran. “It is time to take a step back and try and determine what it really is that we want to scale up…and then how we can take that vision and make it happen with consistency.”

Rep. Dunn agrees that taking a step back and re-evaluating the program ought to be a top priority over the coming months.

But he’s more of a mind to roll pre-K back than scale it up.

“If we are trying to get kids ready for kindergarten, then what does that really look like? If that is the goal, we should approach it in a different way,” he said. “I don’t think it takes a whole year to get ready for kindergarten. And in the past I have proposed that if we used the summer months before kindergarten for at-risk kids to get up to speed, you would probably get the same effect, at about two-thirds less of the cost.”

Dunn may have a powerful ally in Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

The Tennessee Senate’s presiding lawmaker has never expressed much regard for pre-K. Last year he described pre-K as “a liberal, feel-good program that’s not working.”

In an emailed statement to TNReport on Wednesday, Ramsey said the Vanderbilt study serves as confirmation that “pre-K’s effectiveness is marginal at best and all but disappears over the long term.”

“It is time to face the hard truth that, while well-intentioned, government funded pre-K is ultimately a misallocation of resources,” said the Blountville Republican. “Tennessee is one of the most-improved states in the nation in education and we must do what we can to remain so. We need to train our focus on those areas where we can affect the lives of our children and get results: K-12 and higher education.”

Dunn, too, proposes routing state taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on pre-K back into K-12 education.

“I have always believed that putting great teachers in the classroom is important. Maybe we can have a conversation about teacher salaries, or something along those lines,” he told TNReport.

Jim Wrye, a spokesman and lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said he’s heard talk like that from Dunn before. But even in wake of the Vanderbilt research report, Wrye doesn’t think it’s a very good suggestion.

“We would rather not take from one area in providing services to children and provide it to another,” he said. “Our position is that, overall, Tennessee education is woefully underfunded.”

Wrye added, “TEA has always been a supporter of early childhood education and believing that high-quality education with a teacher that is empowered to teach and grow the level of learning in the student is really critical to their future.”

Nevertheless, Wrye said the Vanderbilt study warrants close examination by everyone interested in education policy in Tennessee.

“Good lord, having a seven- or eight-year-old being burned out on education? We need to start asking ourselves, What are we demanding of our kids and how is it affecting the classroom and the joy of learning?” he said. “That is a really disconcerting outcome.”

Wrye suggested the study could in fact be interpreted as an indictment of high-pressure test-taking situations in early grade school.

“We think it is an incredibly bad policy idea, the idea of pushing such young children into that sort of memorization-regurgitation role,” he said. “The idea that you are going to gain meaningful data out of standardized tests for six-year-olds makes no sense to us whatsoever. So, policies that really drive high-stakes standardized testing can burn kids out, there is no doubt about it.”

Dunn’s view is that the Vanderbilt results — and results like it from previous studies, including an assessment commissioned several years ago by the Tennessee comptroller’s office — show that pushing kids into schoolroom settings too early can produce negative outcomes.

“I think what we are finding, and that people need to recognize is, maybe, just maybe, putting a bunch of four-year-olds in a classroom is not a good idea,” he said. “We have to remember that there are 19 other four-year-olds in the classroom influencing the children, too. And if they are a bad influence, that could lead to problems down the road.”

Gov. Bill Haslam, who for years has indicated he’ll rely heavily on the Vanderbilt study’s results to chart his administration’s long-rang thinking on pre-K, said earlier this week that he’s yet to fully examine the findings.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, quickly put out a statement after release of the Vanderbilt report Monday declaring his full support for continued taxpayer financing of pre-K.

“Students have better attitudes about school and are better prepared for classroom instruction when they have access to high-quality pre-K programs. Our challenge is to sustain that growth as students move to higher grade levels,” Fitzhugh said. “So the question is not does early childhood education work — it does. The question is whether Tennessee will invest in the education infrastructure necessary to support those gains long-term. That remains to be seen, but certainly is something of which I am in favor.”