By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Democratic leaders said Wednesday that they plan to talk with Gov. Bill Haslam about expanding pre-kindergarten classes after the state’s education commissioner said he doesn’t plan to request funding for an expansion.
Commissioner Kevin Huffman spoke earlier this week during the governor’s budget hearings. Haslam has asked state departments to develop plans for a 5 percent cut in spending as a fallback.
The Commercial Appeal reported Huffman said expanding enrollment in schools and inflation will require an additional $2 million in routine cost increases.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner told The Associated Press on Wednesday that pre-K is needed and that he plans to talk to the governor and consider legislation to expand it.
“Pre-K has been successful here in Tennessee,” Turner said. “I think it’s time to expand it again. I think you’ll see legislation coming from us to do that, and I’m sure we’ll talk to the governor about it.”
Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program has not been expanded since 2008. Established in 1999, the program has 934 classrooms serving about 18,500 children.
Some Republican legislative leaders have pushed for cutting the program, but Haslam has said he’s for expanding it when money is available to pay for it. It now costs about $86 million a year, and Huffman says about one-third of eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled. The program is limited under current law to children whose family incomes are low enough to qualify students for free school lunches.
Even though Huffman did not ask for it, Haslam could request an expansion in his budget proposal. Haslam told reporters after budget hearings on Wednesday that he’s still reviewing the effectiveness of the pre-K program.
“One of the things I’ve said all along is that I’d love to use this time to track to see what kind of differences it’s making, so no final call,” he said.
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said he believes the program is beneficial and hopes the governor decides to fund it.
“I think it’s very clear that pre-K is a most effective and economical way to increase education attainment and I would certainly hope that we can expand it,” he said.
Also Wednesday, House Speaker Beth Harwell said education legislation lawmakers will likely tackle again this year deals with vouchers.
In addition to considering funding for pre-K, Haslam has also weighed creating a school voucher system in Tennessee, which has drawn mixed views from members of both parties.
Republicans in the Legislature have traditionally been more supportive of voucher programs, while voicing more skepticism about the pre-K program. Democrats have largely opposed vouchers and called for more public early childhood learning opportunities.
A task force appointed by the governor to study the voucher issue is supposed to have its final meeting on Friday and present recommendations early next week.
If brought up, Harwell said the “vouchers will be a controversial piece of legislation.”
“I think the whole issue of vouchers is one that the Legislature will spend a considerable amount of time debating and discussing if it comes forward as part of the governor’s agenda, which I suspect that it might,” said the Nashville Republican.