Pre-K payoff

North Carolina just countered Tennessee’s findings on pre-K fadeout. Here’s the difference, according to researchers.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Policymakers across the country have debated how to build effective public prekindergarten programs.

A new study suggests that Tennessee might want to up spending and look toward its neighbor to the east if it wants to get prekindergarten right.

This week, Duke University released research showing that North Carolina’s investment in public pre-K programs led to better outcomes for its students. Its researchers found that the positive effects — including higher test scores, less grade retention, and fewer special education placements — grew or held steady over the years.

At first glance, the findings seem to contradict those released last year by Vanderbilt University researchers about Tennessee’s public pre-K programs. That study’s authors concluded that by third grade, the students who attended pre-K actually fared worse academically, calling into question how much return states and communities can expect from their investments in early childhood education.

“Money does matter,” said Helen “Sunny” Ladd, a co-author of the Duke study. “It’s important that (it’s) used well. But if something is important, like preschool, it seems to make sense to spend money on it and keep improving it.”

In fact, the Duke results echo what Vanderbilt researchers Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey have said all along: that pre-K’s promise can only be realized if programs are high-quality and work in tandem with other parts of the education system. They theorized that a lack of support before children turn 4, as well as the low-performing elementary schools that those children attend after pre-K, might be to blame for the Tennessee’s program’s disappointing results.

The Duke study looked at more than 1 million North Carolina public school students born between 1988 and 2000, and how their counties funded two early education programs: Smart Start, which focused on ensuring that infants through 4-year-olds entered school healthy and ready to learn, and More at Four, a pre-K program.

 By the end of fifth grade, children living in counties with average levels of early education funding saw a gain of more than six months of reading instruction and more than three months of math instruction, regardless of poverty level. The children also had significantly higher mean math and reading scores in grades three, four and five, and their odds of needing special education during elementary school were lower.

Ladd said several factors might put alumni of North Carolina’s pre-K programs at an advantage: Smart Start served as a foundation for pre-K, and North Carolina historically has had higher-performing elementary schools than Tennessee, which might help sustain pre-K gains. Tennessee also spends about $500 less than North Carolina per pre-K student, up to $10,000 less per classroom.

“The effectiveness of preschool undoubtedly depends both on what happens before and what happens after,” Ladd said, adding that it was impossible to separate out the effects of Smart Start on North Carolina students.

“There’s evidence from lots of studies across the country that preschool is important,” she said. “What the Tennessee study suggests is that maybe Tennessee needs to keep working on their program.”

Creative funding

Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus. Here’s a new idea to invest more in schools.

With about $2 billion in extra revenue this year, Tennessee is flush with cash.

But it may not last, which is why Gov. Bill Haslam is reticent to invest too much of the state’s surplus in public schools in need ongoing funding.

Now two state lawmakers have an idea that could both benefit public education and satisfy fiscal conservatives.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville propose using $250 million of this year’s surplus to create a public education fund akin to a college endowment. Money that grows out of the one-time investment could be used to help schools with extras that aren’t already covered by the state’s school funding formula.

In the first year alone, the fund could produce about $10 million in revenue for Tennessee schools, according to Fitzhugh’s estimate. Then, in other boom times, the state could add money to the fund if lawmakers see fit.

The idea was inspired by Tennessee Promise, which invests state lottery money in a separate fund used to cover students’ tuition to community college.

Why not use a similar approach for K-12 education? ask Fitzhugh and Yarbro, both Democrats.

“Tennessee is doing pretty well,” Fitzhugh said. “We could come up with a sizeable fund to put up in a separate fund, a separate endowment for primary and secondary education. This year is unique to do that.”

The level of funding for public schools has been the source of several lawsuits against the state by local districts that say Tennessee isn’t fulfilling its obligation to provide all students with an adequate education.

The Fitzhugh-Yarbro bill would help address that concern by allocating the fund’s additional revenue to districts based on student enrollment. Districts couldn’t use the money to cover basic necessities like teacher salaries — just extras that aren’t covered by Tennessee’s Basic Education Program.

“We had in mind reading courses, some additional money for dual enrollment — things that would get students ready to take on the Tennessee Promise,” Fitzhugh said.

The fund also could provide a buffer during lean times.

“These good times are probably not going to last forever,” Fitzhugh said. “If we needed some operating money to make it through the year, the legislature could authorize that some of this fund could be used for that purpose.”

While proposed by two Democrats in a state with a Republican supermajority, the bill is getting a serious look from lawmakers. The measure sailed through education committees in both chambers.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam leads a 2015 budget hearing.

But it may be a tougher sell beginning this week in legislative finance committees, which also are looking at Haslam’s proposed budget. Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the bill has a “fiscal flag” because it’s price tag is not reflected in the governor’s spending plan, which already includes a $230 million increase for schools. Haslam wants to use part of the surplus to boost Tennessee’s “rainy day” fund to about $800 million.

“It’s sort of in his court right now,” Fitzhugh said of the governor. “It’s not a partisan bill. It’s totally something that could benefit the No. 1 thing, which is education.”

Vision quest

Is Colorado’s school ‘vision bill’ doomed?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Rangeview junior Coree Morgan works on an assignment in her electronics class.

A proposed overhaul of Colorado’s public schools has hit a legislative roadblock.

State Senate leadership has assigned a bill that would create a series of legislative committees to study and propose changes to Colorado’s education laws to the State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

That legislative panel is known for killing bills leadership opposes.

Sponsors of the House Bill 1287, which cleared the state House of Representatives earlier this month with broad bipartisan support, argue Colorado’s education policies are a patchwork of reform efforts and outdated mandates. And given the state’s decentralized education system, the legislature needs to play a larger role in creating a clearer vision for what Colorado schools should look like in the 21st Century.

But Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said he believes the bill is just setting up an argument to send more money to schools.

“It seems like their focus is proving a premise that more money is necessary,” Holbert said Monday. “And that’s just not a premise I’m comfortable in supporting.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, called Holbert’s objection shortsighted.

“It’s a dangerous viewpoint,” Rankin said. ”That’s not what this is.”

Rankin and his House co-sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, both serve on the legislative committee that writes the state’s budget. For years they’ve advocated for making changes to how the state funds schools.

One of the stated goals of the bill, Hamner and Rankin have said, is to create a unified vision for the state’s schools that could be sold to voters if it was determined a tax increase would be necessary.

Between the two, Rankin has been less bullish on the argument that schools need more money.

But the bill would also provide the state a chance to review and reconsider major education legislation that’s been enacted since 2008. That includes everything from new graduation requirements for high school students to teacher evaluations.

The state affairs committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday.

One of the members of the committee, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, was a sponsor of the bill. But he dropped his support earlier this month.

He said he objected to the new bureaucratic structure the bill creates.

“A permanent new government program is not the right direction now,” he said, referring to the committees established in the bill.

Rankin, who called the bill one of the most important of his legislative career, said he’s holding out hope and would continue the conversation regardless.

“We don’t think strategically. It’s hard for most of the folks in the legislature to think way ahead,” Rankin said. “I realize it’s a heavy lift, and even if the bill does fail, we have to keep talking about it.”