By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam is considering a funding boost for the state’s public pre-kindergarten program, a move that would put him at odds with some fellow Republicans in the Legislature.
The governor told The Associated Press in an interview this week that Tennessee’s improving revenue picture could allow the state to resume pre-K expansion.
“You’ll see us between now and when we propose next year’s budget making a decision on if it’s time to fund pre-K in a bigger way,” Haslam said. “I’m hoping that some encouraging revenue will give us a chance to look at some new things to fund that we haven’t been before, not just pre-K but also some other things.”
The pre-K program was begun as a $10 million pilot project for about 150 classrooms under Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in 1998. Under his Democratic successor, Phil Bredesen, the program was expanded by nearly 800 classrooms statewide to serve more than 18,000 children at an annual cost of about $85 million.
The pre-K program is currently focused on at-risk children — education jargon for those eligible for free and reduced lunches. Bredesen had called for making pre-K available to any family that chooses to enroll a child. But those plans were put on hold because of the recession, and Haslam hasn’t made significant changes to the program during the first two legislative sessions.
Haslam has a direct personal history with the state’s pre-K program: He was on hand as mayor of Knoxville when Bredesen signed the initial expansion of the pre-K program into law in 2005.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville is among several Republican lawmakers who have been vocal critics of the pre-K program. His office did not return a message seeking comment. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for House Beth Harwell said the Nashville Republican didn’t want to weigh in until the governor makes a specific proposal.
The state Education Department did not respond to messages seeking information on the current number of pre-K classrooms, or how much the state is now spending on the program.
The Bredesen administration projected that about 60 percent of children would attend pre-K if the program was open to all, at an increased annual cost of about $150 million. Haslam during the governor’s race said his estimate would be closer to $300 million.
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville and a longtime opponent of expanding pre-K funding, said he expects the actual costs would be closer to $500 million.
“If you make it where every 4-year-old who wants to go can go, it would be voluntary, but 90 percent would send their kids,” he said. “You would say, ‘I’ll pay for daycare or private pre-K, or I can let the taxpayers pay for it.'”
Dunn said he had planned to speak with the governor this summer about why the state shouldn’t spend more money on pre-K. “I might have to move that meeting up,” he said.
Dunn cites a state comptroller’s study that found children who attended pre-K did worse in subsequent years than those who did not. Pre-K supporters dismiss that analysis as flawed and point to other studies that tout the educational benefits of early childhood education.
“I know the governor likes to deal with reality,” Dunn said. “Especially when he sees the disappointing returns on our investment in pre-K.”