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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.

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Featured Tax and Budget

About Half a Billion in Gov’t Bacon ID’d by Beacon

In Tennessee, taxpayer money has been used to dabble in the movie-making business, prop up car companies, and promote country music heritage — in Virginia.

Such projects are cataloged in a new Pork Report tracking $468 million in waste and public malfeasance in the past year, $216 million worth of loin, butt and chops at the state level, the Center says.

Authored by the Nashville-based Beacon Center, the report identified more than $182 million in what the center calls “corporate welfare.” Furthermore, “politicians went hog wild” spending the citizenry’s resources on what Beacon Center president Justin Owen described as “taxpayer-funded tourist traps,” including a country music museum in Virginia and a planned water-and-snow theme park in Nashville.

“Many times politicians try to convince us that somehow their visions are grander and more wonderful,” said Ben Cunningham, a Tea Party leader and spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt who Tuesday joined Owen at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “Sometimes they even try to convince us that they are a cut above — morally and intellectually above the rest of us — and that their grand, good intentions are somehow grander and more wonderful than the good intentions of the citizenry.

“But in fact, they’re ordinary human beings just like you and I, and they have to be held to the same standards that everybody else is held to.”

This is the seventh year the Beacon Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has published the Pork Report. TCPR was founded in 2004 by Johnson City-native Drew Johnson, who next month will succeed 70-year veteran Tennessee newspaperman Lee Anderson as an opinion page editor for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

State spending Beacon’s 2012 Pork Report identified as wasteful included:

  • $2 million in film incentives in 2012.
  • $1.5 million in economic incentives for GM to expand its plant in Spring Hill.
  • $266,200 to Volkswagen to put a sign, only visible from the air, atop its plant in Chattanooga.
  • $500,000 for a planned country music museum in Bristol on the Virginia side of the state line adjacent to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s district.
  • $88.7 million for pre-kindergarten, which has “repeatedly failed to have a significant lasting impact on the education of Tennessee’s children.”

“This year state and local governments didn’t hold back when spending taxpayers’ money,” said Owen.

Political responsibility for much of the iffy spending and sketchy programs pegged in the report can be assigned to fiscally conservative-talking Republicans, who run state government and are not expected to lose their grip on power in this year’s legislative elections.

“Republicans spend just like Democrats do,” Owen said. “And when you’re spending someone else’s money, you have an incentive to spend it unwisely.”

Although the report points to spending made on Gov. Bill Haslam’s watch, the governor contends his administration is already on top of cutting out pork spending.

“I can promise you that government waste has got our full attention. Now, waste is obviously defined different ways by different folks,” Haslam told reporters Tuesday after defending spending on Pre-K, economic development and tourism.

“One of the value judgements you make every year in the budget is, what are you going to fund out of a lot of potential good things and what are you going to cut out of several things that people have an opinion about whether that’s critical or just nice to have.”

The Center thinks much remains in the latter category and says the state should adopt a law to return excess revenues to taxpayers and set up a state spending commission to root out waste.

The Center advocates strengthening a 1978 state constitutional provision meant to rein in growth. If the state is considering spending that exceeds the growth rate in personal income, lawmakers are required to take a separate vote on the amount beyond that cap. The Center says this vote should require a two-thirds approval, rather than the current majority, and that the measure of personal income growth should be replaced by a figure based on population growth plus inflation.