Tennessee would receive $64.3 million in federal funds – to be matched with $6.4 million in state dollars – to provide pre-kindergarten classes to another 7,861 children under President Obama’s “Preschool for All” program, according to a White House estimate released Wednesday.
A spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam says the governor will review the proposal, but is waiting for a Vanderbilt University study of pre-k effectiveness before making a final decision. The study, launched in 2009, will not complete its first stage until next year.
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, a leading critic of pre-k programs in the state Legislature, said Wednesday the state should ignore the federal offer. He also voiced skepticism about the Vanderbilt study.
Tennessee now has a voluntary pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because of low-family income. It will provide $85 million in funding for the current year to fund 935 pre-k classes enrolling about 18,000 students statewide, according to state Department of Education figures.
Obama’s proposal calls for providing $75 billion nationwide over a 10-year period to expand pre-k enrollment with new funding to come from an increase in federal cigarette taxes.
“Providing a year of free, public preschool for every child is an important investment in our nation’s future, providing our children the best start in life while helping hard-working families save thousands each year in costs associated with early care and education,” said the White House press release.
The president gave a general outline of his proposal in his “State of the Union” address earlier this year. Haslam has said he spoke with the president and Education Arne Duncan about the proposal in a March trip to Washington, but they gave few details.
Asked about the new estimate Wednesday, Haslam spokesman David Smith said in an email that not much has changed.
“Tennessee isn’t too far from having its own data on the effectiveness of pre-K in the state, which the governor prefers using to make any decisions. The proposal from the federal government will be reviewed, specifically for issues such as what strings are attached,” he wrote.
Smith referred to the Vanderbilt study, which reported last year that early results showed an 82 percent increase in learning for students who attended a year of pre-k when compared to students who had not.
Dunn said that was an understandable result, but after “big hoopla” over that finding there has been silence that leads him to suspect “they’re hiding the results.”
Dale Farran, a professor of education and psychology at Vanderbilt’s Peabody said and co-director of the study, said that is not the case and updated findings will be published in “two or three weeks.”
“My educated guess would be, looking at these pre-k studies from around the country, is that the academic difference decreases by the year to where you can’t tell the difference by the third grade,” Dunn said.
“If you’re going to spend money, put it into something that will have more of an effect, say paying our teachers more so they don’t leave the profession because of the difficulty of the job,” Dunn said.
He was also critical the federal government spending more money at a time when a huge deficit exists. Even if federal money is available initially, Dunn said, “Washington is broke” and could divert funds later to other purposes, leaving states with the full bill.
Farran said that, while Dunn is correct that some studies have shown standard test scores of children attending pre-k do become comparable to those without pre-k at older ages, there are also “universal findings” of other benefits from pre-k ranging from higher graduation rates and more likelihood of attending college to lower arrest rates.
The success of pre-k, she said, “depends on what you meant the program to do.” In Tennessee, she said the present program was funded on the idea of preparing children for kindergarten and, in that respect, it appears a complete success.
The Vanderbilt study is tracking two groups of children. The first group will reach third grade in 2014 and bring a report while the second, larger group, will not result in a third-grade report until 2015. Plans call for continuing to follow the children through high school and beyond, she said, and cover long-term impact of pre-k in multiple areas of “societal value” rather than just academic performance.