House minority leader says other districts should have had a shot at pre-K funds

House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh wants to know why Tennessee’s other 132 districts didn’t have a shot at $70 million in federal pre-kindergarten money Gov. Bill Haslam applied for last week on behalf of five school districts, The Tennessean reports.

From The Tennessean:

“’No matter what source, it seems to me you put $70 million in the pre-K school program for two counties, you’re probably going to have to put some like amount or some reasonable amount for the other 93 counties. And you don’t have the luxury of federal funds,’ Fitzhugh said Friday afternoon. ‘That’s a big budgetary issue.”’

The governor applied for a grant for funds to expand pre-K for Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and Bartlett and Millington Schools, all of which lie within Tennessee’s two major metropolitan areas.

Memphis-area efforts to fund pre-K, including failed proposals to raise taxes for more local pre-K classrooms, and Nashville’s push for universal pre-K have been well publicized. But other areas in the state have worked on expanding pre-K too.

Buzz Thompson at the Great Schools Partnership, which helps fund public education in Knox County, said he wondered why that district was excluded from the grant when he read about it in the paper. He has worked with efforts to expand pre-K in the Knoxville area in the past.

The Tennessean reported that Dave Smith, a spokesperson for the governor, said the Memphis-area districts and Metro Nashville Schools were the only districts that contacted the state about applying for the grant.

Issues of disparities in school funding across the state have come up before. In 2002, a coalition of small school systems in Tennessee successfully sued the state for unequal funding and teachers salaries.

The governor’s office appeared hesitant to apply for the grant. When Chalkbeat first reported on it, in August, Smith told Chalkbeat that the governor would not consider expanding pre-K in the state unit a Vanderbilt study on the state’s pre-K program was completed in 2016, implying that state officials would not apply for the grant.

When the governor’s office submitted a note of intent to apply for the grant in September, Smith cautioned that it didn’t mean officials would definitely apply. The governors’ office and Department of Education officials wouldn’t confirm the state had applied for the grant until after the deadline had passed last week.

Pre-K is a politically charged issue in the state. A 2011 comptrollers’ report said the state’s current program are ineffective at preparing students for higher grades, and the preliminary results of the Vanderbilt study on the state’s program also shows that academic advantages from attending pre-K seem to dissipate by the first grade. Legislators like Rep. Bill Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, say those results should be taken into account before the state invests even more in pre-K.

“This is a clear case of the emperor has no clothes,” Dunn said.

But Dale Farran, a lead researcher on Vanderbilt’s study, said that if the state’s current program isn’t showing results, it might be the fault of the program, not pre-K in general.

“We didn’t just want pre-K for the sake of pre-K,” Farran said. “We wanted to reduce the achievement gap and prepare kids for school. Pre-K is a mechanism to get there. If it’s not doing what we need it to, we should be saying, ‘what can we do to make it better?’”