By Chas Sisk / The Tennessean
An effort to get 4-year-olds ready for school may be about to
receive a fresh push from the federal government, but it faces stiff
resistance from Republicans in Tennessee.
Pre-kindergarten - a
preschool program designed primarily for poor children and paid for by
taxpayers - appears to be rising to the forefront of the education
debate. President Barack Obama says making pre-K available to more
children will be one of the top priorities of his second term, arguing
that the program can produce benefits decades down the road.
the president's push could crash into opposition in many parts of the
country, including Tennessee. For all of the enthusiasm that surrounds
educating 4-year-olds, there is an equally strong wave of skepticism,
led by conservatives who consider pre-K little more than
The debate over pre-K echoes the
current battles over Medicaid and other entitlements. Republicans in
Tennessee say they do not want to take on another social program - even
if the federal government will shoulder at least part of the burden - at
a time when deficits are soaring and the economy is weak.
on the other hand, say major investments in education are needed. They
argue that children must start earlier than ever to meet the lofty goals
leaders in Tennessee and elsewhere have set for raising test scores,
lifting skill levels and improving college graduation rates.
who start behind their peers in language and math skills tend to stay
behind," Camilla Benbow, the Patricia Rodes Hard Dean of Education and
Human Development at Vanderbilt University, wrote in a Tennessean guest
column this week. The Peabody Research Institute is hosting a panel
discussion on the long-term impact of preschool at Vanderbilt on Monday.
pushed pre-K back into the spotlight with his State of the Union
address. The president painted a rosy picture of its potential, claiming
that every dollar spent would produce "seven dollars later on."
show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level,
graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their
own," he said.
But Obama's assessment of pre-K was more positive
than even many of its proponents are prepared to put forward. The
president also did not spell out where the dollars for expansion would
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has walked a fine line on
pre-K. During the 2010 campaign, Haslam expressed skepticism about
suggestions that Tennessee should expand its program beyond the 18,000
mostly poor and at-risk children now served. But the governor said
recently that he will listen to arguments in favor of expansion - if
proponents can back up their claims with data.
Researchers have been debating the benefits of educating 4-year-olds
since the 1960s. Obama's claims about a seven-to-one return on
investment and benefits stretching into adulthood appear to be based at
least in part on some of these early studies, which also showed lower
crime and unemployment rates stretching into adulthood.
studies were of programs that combined pre-K with other interventions
that are difficult to carry out on a large scale. Other, more recent
studies have found more modest benefits, with some showing that the
benefits taper off by third grade.
Nevertheless, supporters say
the benefits are real. An ongoing study being conducted at Vanderbilt
has found that two years later, students who had gone through pre-K had
learned about 40 percent more than children who had not. Results in
later years are still being gathered.
"There is a lot of what
really is misinformation that is circulated by think tanks and other
groups," said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for
Early Education Research.
Backers of pre-K say it teaches
4-year-olds how to behave in a classroom, as well as basic reading,
writing and math. Previous generations learned many of these skills in
kindergarten, but that year of school has grown more academic.
also puts poor and disadvantaged children on the same footing as kids
whose parents can afford to put them in private preschools, say
proponents, who contend that skeptics understate the value when they
suggest that the benefits taper off.
"That's like saying, if you
feed a kid on Monday it's a waste because they are hungry again on
Friday," said Marsha Edwards, president and chief executive of the
Martha O'Bryan Center in East Nashville. "Pre-K is what we need to do to
get children started."
The Martha O'Bryan Center operates three
pre-K classrooms, funded by the state through Metro Nashville Public
Schools. There is enough demand to fill three more.
teachers at East End Prep, where she serves on the board of directors,
tell her there's an obvious difference between kids who have pre-K
experience and those who don't.
Across town, demand for pre-K also
exceeds the supply. West Nashville's Trena Troutt said she was unable
to enroll her 4-year-old grandson, D.J. Baker, of whom she has custody,
in the single pre-K classroom at St. Luke's Community House because of
D.J. instead attends another preschool program at
St. Luke's that has encouraged him to read at home and taught him basic
skills. But Troutt worries that 4-year-olds in D.J.'s class do not get
as much structure as those in the pre-K classroom.
government-funded pre-K were expanded, it would come too late for D.J.
But his brother, who is 18 months younger and lives across the street
with his great-grandparents, could benefit, Troutt said.
More detail needed
But before pre-K could expand, a lot of details would have to be filled in. Obama has not been quick to do so.
summary released by the White House calls for making pre-K available to
all families making 200 percent of the federal poverty line or less, a
population that includes more than half the 4-year-olds in the country.
Obama has also praised programs such as those in Georgia and Oklahoma
that are open to all of the state's 4-year-olds, regardless of family
But his statements suggest Obama would like the states to
come up with their own plans for making pre-K more available. He has not
specified how the costs would be shared between the state and the
Haslam said he spoke with Obama and Education
Secretary Arne Duncan about pre-K expansion during a recent meeting in
"We obviously would have to see, does it come
with a lot of strings attached?" Haslam said. "There wasn't a whole lot
else that they could reveal to us."
State Rep. Bill Dunn, one of
pre-K's fiercest critics in the legislature, said the cost of expanding
the program could crowd out investments in other areas of public
"It's been tried, and I think there's a better use of
the money," he said. "The federal government is broke. ... A program
that has been proven not to be very effective - to go deeper in debt -
that is not a wise choice."
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey shares that skepticism.
the president actually proposes that, let's take a look at it," he
said. "But my general philosophy would be universal pre-K is a colossal
waste of money and why borrow money to do it?"
But the proposal
has its backers. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said he believes
lawmakers are growing more receptive to suggestions that the state
"At a national level, we certainly know pre-K is
effective," Fitzhugh said. "I know there's a few colleagues of mine in
the House that haven't felt that way but I do believe that the tide is
turning a bit because the empirical evidence is just there."
Haslam said that data, including the results from Vanderbilt study, will help him make up his mind on expansion.
pre-K effective or not?" Haslam said. "We'll have our own data to
compare to. I'll feel a lot better about using that to make our