Bill by legislature’s GOP chairmen criticized as ‘setup’ to kill fed-funded pre-kindergarten

The House and Senate Republican chairmen are pushing a bill declaring that — if and when a court finds there is discrimination in federal funding for prekindergarten programs in Nashville and Memphis to the exclusion of other areas of Tennessee — those programs will terminate.

The bill (HB159) follows approval last year of $70 million in federal funding for expansion of programs in Davidson and Shelby counties, allowing enrollment of students that would not be covered by the state’s limited pre-K program.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin won approval of the measure at the final meeting of the House Local Government Subcommittee meeting last week. Casada said he is fearful that, because the federal funding applies only in two counties, a judge will sometime decide that the state should match that funding for pre-K in other counties and order a statewide pre-K expansion.

If that happens, the bill declares the state will stop distributing the money to Davidson and Shelby counties — under the present law, the state accepts the federal funding, then distributes it back to the two counties — to avoid any statewide expansion of pre-K with state tax dollars.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said the measure amounts to a “setup to kill pre-K.” Passage, he said, will virtually assure a lawsuit is filed by people opposing pre-K programs generally — no such lawsuit has been filed now — and that voiding of the federal funding for Memphis and Nashville will follow.

Some Republicans also voiced misgivings about the proposal, including subcommittee Chairman Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna. But they went along with approval in the subcommittee after Casada argued the bill was “misunderstood” and can be clarified with further discussion in full committee, perhaps with an amendment.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, who hasn’t put it up for a vote yet.