Ever since Tennessee started its public pre-kindergarten program in 2005, Rep. Bill Dunn has questioned whether it’s money well spent.

His skepticism seemed vindicated in 2015, when a landmark five-year study by Vanderbilt University found that children who participated in Tennessee’s program didn’t make sustainable academic gains. In fact, they fell behind their peers by third grade. 

The legislature responded to the study’s surprising results last year with a new law designed to strengthen Tennessee’s pre-K program.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Bill Dunn

This year, Dunn proposed allowing districts to spend their pre-K money elsewhere. But his bill was killed on Wednesday in the House by colleagues who said they want to give new changes to public pre-K more time to work.

“I’m shocked,” said Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, of the decision by the Instruction and Programs subcommittee. “This is coming across as anti pre-K, but it’s really anti-bad results.”

Dunn’s bill would have piloted a program to allow five districts to come up with other ways to spend their pre-K money — for instance,  making kindergarten classes the smaller. The Tennessee Department of Education would have to approve any change and monitor the impact on student achievement.

But lawmakers said they aren’t ready to meddle with early education while it’s in transition.

“I personally would like to see what comes from those changes … before we do anything else,” said Rep. John Forgety, a Republican from Athens.

The State Department of Education recently overhauled its application for local districts to receive pre-K money according to best practices identified by Vanderbilt researchers. Those changes are an effort to tie funding to quality.

The new applications, which seek state funding for next school year, are due to the state in April, and district officials have been attending trainings as part of the transition.