Press Releases

TN Senate Dems Denounce Legislation Targeting Federal Pre-K Funds for Davidson, Shelby Counties

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; February 25, 2015:

NASHVILLE – New pre-K classrooms in Davidson and Shelby counties could be in jeopardy if legislation in committee today passes the General Assembly.

“We know that early childhood education makes a tremendous difference in a child’s life,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson said. “This legislation would target our state’s two largest school systems and take us a step backward because lawmakers want to make a political point.”

The Shelby County School Consortium and Metro Nashville Public Schools announced in October they will receive $70 million in federal funds for new pre-K classrooms. Whie the legislation is targeted at pre-K, it could have larger implications for local funding. HB 159 would require the state to back out of an agreement to receive federal funding earmarked for a county if the state did not apply on behalf of all local governments.

It will be heard in the House Local Government Subcommittee at 1:30 p.m. today.

“We need to see more pre-K classrooms in every county in Tennessee, but this legislation is not the way to do it,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro said. “Instead, this legislation would impose a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t reflect the needs and opportunities of different communities.”

Education Featured NewsTracker

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

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.

Education Featured NewsTracker

Current Pre-K Funding Staying Where it Is, Haslam Says

Gov. Bill Haslam, Tuesday, reiterated his determination to keep funding pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee at current levels but remained mum about any future plans for expansion.

Speaking to reporters in Jackson, Haslam commented on recent preliminary results from a study by Vanderbilt University comparing the performance of students exposed to pre-k programs and those who are not. The study is ongoing, but the report released last week shows mixed results, especially relating to how long benefits of pre-k education last.

“The results they just reported were a little discouraging in terms of the amount of gain that those pre-k students held on to,” Haslam said Tuesday. “But,” he continued, “we think there are other things to measure and our commitment is to keep funding at its current level until we see another year of two of the study and then we’ll decide from there.”

As The Tennessean reports, the state currently spends about $86 million on pre-k programs, mostly for low income children, and it is eligible to add another $64 million in federal money if Haslam and the legislature agree to put up another $6.4 million in state funds, something that could be less politically viable given the recent Vanderbilt results.

Some critics of pre-k spending including Knoxville Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn have already jumped on the report in recent days. In a statement earlier this week, Dunn dismissed pre-k programs as “very expensive hype.”

For his part, Haslam brushed past any mention of possible political snags, saying Tuesday that his administration would wait at least another year for final results of the study before making any decisions about pursuing the federal expansion dollars.

Press Releases

Dunn Questions Cost-Effectiveness of Pre-K in TN

Press release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus; August 5, 2013:

(NASHVILLE) — Last week, researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University released findings of their 2013 pre-kindergarten study – a research effort dedicated to detailing the effects of pre-kindergarten on the long-term academic success of Tennessee students.

The findings show that by the end of kindergarten “the differences between participants and non-participants were no longer statistically significant”, except in one case where the children who did not attend Pre-K actually outperformed those who did.

“Tennesseans were told that Pre-K would increase graduation rates and even prevent 80 murders and 6,400 aggravated assaults each year,” said State Representative Bill Dunn (R–Knoxville), citing Pre-K advocate literature. “I truly hope people will recognize this was all very expensive hype.”

According to estimates, the total cost of implementing a full-scale Pre-K program in Tennessee would exceed $460 million per year.

“If you do a cost-benefit analysis on this extremely expensive program, you will come to the conclusion that it is like paying $1,000 for a McDonald’s hamburger,” Dunn continued. “It may make an initial dent on your hunger, but it doesn’t last long and you soon realize you could have done a lot more with the money spent.”

Instead, Dunn called for shifting resources to places that have shown to have a real impact on students, like having a great teacher in front of every classroom.

“Our teachers have stepped up with the new educational reforms that have been initiated and have shown improvement on annual test scores for three years in a row. For all of this hard work, I think they should be rewarded,” concluded Dunn.

Bill Dunn serves as Chairman of the House Calendar & Rules Committee. He lives in Knoxville and represents District 16, which includes a portion of Knox County.

Education Featured News Tax and Budget

Governor Ruminating on Education Reform, Round 3

Tennessee students are heading back to class this month, and education reform is likely to be increasingly back in the news heading into the November elections and beyond.

So far, few solid policy directions and details have emerged, but the governor said this week he and his advisers are wrestling with issues ranging from school choice to expanding taxpayer-funded pre-K to better preparing post-secondary students for the workforce.

Here’s where things stand at present:

Vouchers Not a ‘Done Deal’

A contingent of legislative Republicans — among them the Senate’s most powerful member,  Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — have for some time asserted a commitment to expanding publicly funded choices available to parents who worry their children aren’t getting the highest-quality, individualized education they deserve through traditional government-run schools.

Their plan is to establish a system of “opportunity scholarships,” or vouchers, that will allow parents to put taxpayer resources toward the public, charter, private or parochial school of their choice. The Senate OK’d that plan in 2011 but it failed to gain similar momentum in the House.

But Haslam is still hesitant. He said that for the plan to come to legislative fruition a lot of complicated policy obstacles and political pitfalls will have to be negotiated. Last year the governor himself put the brakes on a school-voucher proposal, opting instead to appoint a task force to study the issue and report back in November.

The Tennessee-based free-market Beacon Center and a national group called the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice this spring released a poll they co-conducted suggesting that support for vouchers is solid in the Volunteer State. However, the governor told reporters this week he’ll need to be convinced a voucher system will result in more than just an “incremental difference” in the state’s education outcomes for him to put the weight of his administration behind it.

“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” he said of the voucher push. “That’s a political observation, not a personal observation.”

“In other words, whatever money is transferred with that child is enough to really provide the education but doesn’t wreck the existing school system. So getting that balance right I think will be the biggest challenge,” Haslam added.

The governor’s task force met Thursday and is expected to meet again Sept. 26.

Expanding Pre-K On Long To-Do List

Despite significant opposition from members of his own party, the governor has hinted he’d like to look into expanding the state’s pre-K program for low-income children.

But he’s not sure if that issue will make it into his legislative agenda come next year, he said.

“I’ve listed that as a possibility along with a whole gamut of other things that we should look at,” Haslam said.

“I still think its applicability is probably more in our low income high need areas. I don’t see a scenario where we’re going to have universal pre-K in Tennessee. Will we expand it or not? It’s in the list to be debated out among a lot of other worthy potentials,” he said.

Studies of Tennessee’s pre-K program show mixed results. A state-commissioned study released last year indicates the effects of Tennessee’s Pre-K program diminish by third grade. Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute is currently attempting to “study of the effectiveness” of Pre-K in Tennessee, and says students showed an average gain of 82 percent in early literacy and math skills.

Higher Education Front & Center

Haslam says he’s committed to finding ways to improve education systems in hopes of raising the quality of graduates it churns.

Whether that means through policy-tweaking efforts within the administration or new legislation, the governor said he’s as this stage unsure.

“I think the first thing it impacts is how we budget,” Haslam said. “Whether there will be other legislative proposals, I don’t know I have an answer to that yet.”

“At the end of the day the most important thing we do, I think, in government, is we allocate capital. We allocate where money goes. And we have to get that right if we want to be a great state,” he said.

He’s taken to the road on this issue, holding a series of seven roundtable discussions across the state and a summit in Nashville earlier this year to dive into the pitfalls of the state’s current system and what the needs are of local employers.

What appears to be coming out of the hearings is that the state needs to do a better job of linking state funding with programs in high-demand fields like welding, nursing and engineering, he said.

Haslam added that fiscal disciple is still a primary concern to his administration across the board in state government, including public education. Anytime there arises a possibility of making additional taxpayer-funding available to higher education, such discussions must be coupled with efforts to improve financial efficiencies, said the governor.

Education Featured News NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Ramsey Cautious on Haslam’s Call for Pre-K Expansion Discussions

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey maintains that he still vigorously opposes taxpayer-funded early-childhood education programs beyond those already offered to “at-risk” kids.

But Ramsey indicated he may be open to getting on board with an effort to expand Pre-K so that more poor children can gain access, an idea Gov. Bill Haslam recently suggested his administration might consider if the state’s revenues continue to grow.

“I hope the governor is not leaning toward Pre-K, universal Pre-K, in the state of Tennessee, but is simply talking about expanding further than we have to make sure we are covering those at-risk kids,” the Blountville Republican told reporters in his Capitol Hill office.

With the uptick in the state’s economy,  Haslam told The Associated Press last month that he is weighing whether to expand the state’s $86 million Pre-K program, which served more than 18,000 children last year.

Pre-K will be available in every county next school year in Tennessee but is limited to at-risk students, defined as those who would qualify for free or reduced lunch.

A state-commissioned study released last year indicates the effects of Tennessee’s Pre-K program diminish by third grade. Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute is currently attempting to “study of the effectiveness” of Pre-K in Tennessee.

“I do believe that any study will show that Pre-K has some effect on at-risk students, but I will never be in favor of universal Pre-K in the state of Tennessee,” Ramsey said. “It is all about limited dollars, a finite pot of money, and how do you best use that money for the best return.”

Ramsey’s comments put him to some degree at odds with staunch opponents of the state’s Pre-K program within the Republican Party, including Sen. Mike Bell, who believes the most worthwhile debate ought to be whether the program ought to be funded at all.

House Rules Committee Chairman Bill Dunn said he believes officials should be thinking “outside the box” about how to improve and better define the goals of existing efforts.

Dunn said he’s inclined toward preferring discussions about keeping kindergartners in the classroom longer during the day, or investing in better reading programs in primary grades.

“I would hope it doesn’t become a discussion of if you’re for, or against, Pre-K,” said the Knoxville Republican. Rather he wants to see “a discussion of what we want to achieve.”

“We have limited resources, and we ought to think this through before we put more money into a system we use out of simplicity,” Dunn said.

Press Releases

Senate Dems Praise Haslam for Not Coupling Pre-K Programs, School Vouchers

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; June 7, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – Senate Democratic leaders thanked Governor Bill Haslam Thursday for refusing to tie his proposal for increased Pre-Kindergarten funding to the introduction of government giveaways to private academies through school vouchers.

“I applaud the Governor’s refusal to play politics with the Pre-K program,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney. “Many parents I talk with are asking for more Pre-K classrooms, especially in rural areas. Whether or not the administration and the legislature ultimately expand the program is a very worthy debate, and one that should not be tangled up in a dispute over the effectiveness of a school voucher program.”

When addressing separate proposals regarding Pre-K funding and vouchers, Haslam told the Associated Press, “I don’t think they’re coupled at all.”

“In both cases it’s one of those where both of them are controversial, but at the end of the day our mission is to figure out what’s effective and what works,” Haslam told the AP.

The state’s Pre-K program began under Republican Governor Don Sundquist and expanded to serve more than 18,000 children under Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen, according to the report. Haslam has discussed further expansions of Pre-K, which helped Tennessee secure $501 million in Race to the Top funds and has increasingly improved student achievement, especially for children from low-income households.

“I support the Governor’s consideration of expanding Pre-K, and I look forward to seeing the specifics of his proposal,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, who sponsored Bredesen’s current expansion of Pre-K and its funding.

“Pre-K gives thousands of Tennessee children a head start on a quality education and prepares them for a lifetime of learning. All other progress we make in Tennessee schools begins with the foundation we lay in the Pre-K program.”

Education News

Haslam Not Convinced Pre-K Effectiveness a ‘Hoax,’ Calls for More Study

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.

According to the Strategic Research Group’s Pre-K report summary:

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.

Press Releases

State-Commissioned Study: Pre-K Boosts ‘School Readiness’; Long-Term Benefits ‘Negligible’

Executive Summary of “Assessing the Impact of Tennessee’s Pre-Kindergarten Program: Final Report,” Released May 31, 2011 by the Strategic Research Group:

In 2007, the Tennessee Office of the Comptroller contracted Strategic Research Group (SRG) to conduct a study to investigate the short- and long-term effects of state-funded Pre-Kindergarten (Pre- K) participation on academic outcomes in Kindergarten through Fifth Grade through an examination of existing school records (i.e., secondary data). The evaluation was structured to take place over a multi-year timeframe and in a series of reporting stages. The overarching goal of this effort over the series of reports submitted to date has been to identify Pre-K participants in existing school records and to determine, to the best possible extent given the data available for analysis, whether there is evidence to suggest that Pre-K participation is associated with a positive effect on student performance in Grades K-5 relative to students who did not participate in Pre-K.

On the whole, the results of analyses conducted to date in this series of analyses of outcomes in Grades K-5 point to an initial near-term advantage associated with Pre-K participation in Kindergarten and First Grade—primarily for students who received Free/Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) or are considered “at-risk” due to socioeconomic status. Longitudinal analyses conducted in two previous reports have found that this initial advantage tends to be followed by a pattern of convergence, although a slight advantage of Pre-K participation appears to be maintained among economically disadvantaged students through the Second Grade. For students in Grades 3-5, analyses have found either no significant effect of Pre-K participation on assessment scores, or, in some cases, have found that students who attended Pre-K, on average, score lower than their non-Pre-K counterparts on some assessments.

The goal of this final report has been to maximize the number of student records that can be included in the analysis, providing opportunities for longitudinal analyses that were not possible for previous reports in this series. This provides valuable perspective considering that each previous report has varied in terms of the program years covered as well as the school years/grade levels incorporated into the analysis. Thus, this final report includes all possible student records from the years specified in the study period.

In order to evaluate the short- and long-term impact of Pre-K on student outcomes, a sample of non-Pre-K students was randomly selected that mirrored the Pre-K group with regard to school or school system, gender, race, and FRPL status.

Data were analyzed using random effects analysis of covariance models, also referred to more broadly as hierarchical linear models or multilevel models. Analyses controlled for demographic characteristics such as child race and gender, as well as FRP status, special education, English as a Second Language (ESL) status, and retention.

Combined results across ten cohorts of students who participated in Pre-K indicate that on standardized assessments in Kindergarten, Pre-K students—particularly those who experience economic disadvantage—perform better than students who did not participate in Pre-K. 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 results of the analyses of long-term effects (i.e., Grades 3-5) find that the differences between Pre-K students and non-Pre-K students are negligible, particularly when examining assessment outcomes for students who experienced economic disadvantage. By the third grade, students who did not experience economic disadvantage performed better on standardized assessments than Pre-K and non-Pre-K students who had received FRPL, although not as well as students who had not experienced any known risk factors.

This study has faced some challenges. One of the greatest is that no assessments were available for students as they began Kindergarten. Instead, assessments conducted end-of-year in Kindergarten are the earliest indicator available that we can use to gauge the most immediate impact of program participation. However, even this indicator is impacted by factors outside of the control of the Pre-K program, including the fact that these data were only available when school systems elected to administer assessments at the Kindergarten level. The majority of Kindergarten students did not complete standardized assessments; more students are assessed in First Grade, but still not the majority.

Arguably, the greatest limitation of this study is that educational records do not indicate whether students participated in any Pre-K program other than Tennessee’s Pre-K. Throughout this series of studies, analyses have not been able to determine whether students in the non-Pre-K group attended another type of Pre-K program, nor have the analyses conducted here been able to control for additional interventions students may have received (or have not received) beyond Pre-K. These remain the most significant issues in terms of interpretation of the results because it is quite likely that the benefits of Pre-K are underestimated in the models presented here.

Despite the limitations of this study, however, the overall conclusions to be drawn from this series of reports and the cumulative analyses presented in this final report have been consistent: students who participate in Pre-K reliably show better outcomes on Kindergarten assessments than students who do not participate in the Pre-K program. These results provide evidence that the objective of Tennessee’s Pre-K program – school readiness – is being met.

Press Releases

Dunn: Claims of Pre-K Effectiveness Possibly ‘the Largest Hoax Ever Perpetrated on the People of Tennessee’

Press Release from the House Republican Caucus, June 7, 2011:

House Education Committee Member, Representative Bill Dunn, Points to Dismal Findings in Recent Comptroller Report

(NASHVILLE, June 7, 2011) – Last Friday, the Office of the Comptroller released the details of a long-awaited final, summary report on the impact of pre-kindergarten in Tennessee classrooms.

The study was conducted by Strategic Research Group to investigate the short- and long-term effects of state-funded Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) participation on academic outcomes in Kindergarten through Fifth Grade through an examination of existing school records. The evaluation was structured to take place over a multi-year timeframe and in a series of reporting stages.

The study shows that gains a Pre-K child makes are very short lived. In fact, in some areas the children without Pre-K ended up doing better than those in the state program. To quote directly from page six of the study, “For students in grades 3-5, analyses have found either no significant effect of Pre-K participation on assessment scores, or, in some cases, have found that students that attended Pre-K, on average, score lower than their non-Pre-K counterparts on some assessments.”

After reviewing the details of the study, Representative Bill Dunn (R—Knoxville) pointed to the results as proof that the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on the program may have been better used elsewhere in education.”We have teachers who need raises and children who need books and the Tennessee Pre-K program is gobbling up and wasting valuable resources,” said Rep. Dunn.

“This report should serve as a revelation for individuals who still believe Pre-K is some sort of answer for long-term achievement in education,” continued Dunn. “The fact is, it just isn’t. It may be the largest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of Tennessee.”

The full report is available on the Comptroller’s OREA website at the following address: