Fitzhugh: Sending pre-k expansion money to just Nashville and Memphis could bring lawsuit

The leading Democrat in the state House of Representatives believes Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration missed an opportunity with its recent application for federal early education funding and may have opened up the state to a lawsuit, reports The Tenenseean.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he’s happy Nashville and Shelby County stand to gain nearly $70 million in federal grant money to expand their prekindergarten programming. but every district in the state should have been allowed to make their own request.

He thinks previous legal challenges to the state’s education funding system and the state constitution show that, regardless of the source of the money, funding for each district needs to be equal.

“No matter what source, it seems to me you put $70 million in the pre-K school program for two counties, you’re probably going to have to put some like amount or some reasonable amount for the other 93 counties. And you don’t have the luxury of federal funds,” Fitzhugh said Friday afternoon.

“That’s a big budgetary issue.”

Last week the state Department of Education announced it submitted an application for federal grant money on behalf of Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools. The state says it is serving as a pass-through for the two districts. If awarded the funds, Nashville plans to add 400 seats in 2015 and Shelby County plans to add 1,000 seats by 2018.

“That’s a different deal than the state making a statewide commitment of general fund dollars to pre-K,” Haslam said Friday morning.

Fitzhugh and other Democrats are frequent opponents of Haslam and other Republicans who do not want to use additional state funding to expand pre-K throughout the state. While many Democrats support universal pre-K, the Republican-controlled legislature has repeatedly sided against the state funding any expansion. Fitzhugh said he did applaud the administration’s announcement in September that it would apply for Preschool Development Grant funds from the U.S. Department of Education.

The governor has routinely said he wants to await results from an ongoing Vanderbilt University study that is tracking the progress of pre-K students through high school before he decides whether to propose expanding the state’s pre-K program, which has not expanded grown substantially since 2005.

Though that study won’t be finished until 2019, Haslam said a decision would likely come before then. Still, he said he’s not considering expanding pre-K funding for the next state budget and that a decision would be “at least a year away.”