Knoxville reps' views on pre-k vary from 'hype' to 'great'

6:40 PM, Aug 6, 2013   |    comments
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  • Photo by The Tennessean
  • Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville)
  • Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville)

Researchers at Vanderbilt University are studying the impact of pre-kindergarten for children as they move on to elementary school and beyond.  The researchers call the study "unprecedented" as they follow 3,000 students from pre-k through third grade.

There are still a couple of years left in the study, but early observations are already being jumped on by state representatives as evidence both for and against funding pre-k programs.  It is easy for both sides of the argument to refer to the study because the research shows mixed results.

On one hand, it shows pre-k helps students drastically when they reach kindergarten, but students who did not attend pre-k quickly catch up.

"If you look at this pre-k program, it's like paying $1,000 for a McDonald's hamburger. It puts a dent in your hunger at first, but then it wears off and you look back and say 'boy I wish I had my money back I could have spent it a lot better,'" said State Representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville).  "There were people at one point saying pre-k was going to reduce murders and increase graduation rates.  And it was hype, because the results are not showing that at all.  This is money that would be better spent on teachers and teacher salaries."

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) is a long-time teacher and supports pre-k funding.  She pointed out the Vanderbilt study shows students who did not go to pre-k were twice as likely to be held back from first grade than those who did attend pre-k.

"So that's good and we know from teachers the students that have pre-k are definitely prepared for kindergarten," said Johnson. "There is so much research and evidence throughout the country that pre-k makes a big difference."

Johnson said she is interested in the classroom data that emerges from the study in the next couple of years.  She also said the research will hopefully provide answers for how to improve pre-k programs and warned against premature judgment that would "throw the baby out with the bath water."

"Don't tear something down because one part of it does not work. It's about adapting because there are things out there working, there's no question.  This is a study about how Tennessee pre-k is working.  If Tennessee's numbers do not look good, maybe Tennessee should look at how they are doing it.  I think there is more to the data than just that surface bit that has been cherry-picked."

The Vanderbilt study and other research could determine whether Tennessee spends tens of millions of dollars to expand pre-k programs in the state. Right now Tennessee already spends about $86 million on pre-k programs for about 18,000 low-income students.  In June the federal government offered Tennessee $64 million to expand pre-k with the condition that the state pitches in $6.4 million.  Thus far, Governor Bill Haslam has declined the government's offer and says he wants to see more evidence that pre-k programs are a good investment.

"The governor continues to look forward to the final results of the long-term study," wrote spokesperson Dave Smith on behalf of Governor Haslam.  "Until we know more about the effectiveness of pre-k in Tennessee, he [Haslam] will maintain funding at its current levels."

As for the researchers, they have called for patience during the study which concludes in 2015.

"This is not the final word," said researcher Mark Lipsey in an interview with The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville (The Tennessean is owned by WBIR's parent-company, Gannett).  "We're at this awkward interim stage where one thing has faded out and the other seems to be coming online, and neither is definitive, and here we are in the middle of a politically sensitive issue."

Lipsey pointed out there are positives for pre-k students, such as increased promotion from kindergarten to first grade as well as improvements in overall school attendance for pre-k students compared to those who did not attend pre-k.

"A lot of what matters for kids - particularly these high-risk kids who are the focus of the pre-k program - a lot of what matters is hanging in there in school," he said.

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