Tennessee wins $70 million federal pre-K grant

Tennessee won the first, $17,500,000 installment in a four year, $70 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand prekindergarten, the federal department announced today.

The grant will provide a total of 50 new pre-K classes in Memphis and Nashville.

The money will be split evenly between Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and the Shelby County School Consortium, which encompasses Shelby County Schools, Millington Schools, the Achievement School District, and Bartlett Schools.

Gov. Bill Haslam applied for the grant in October, after some back and forth about whether the funding would provide academic benefits. He has been adamant that he will not increase state spending on pre-K until a Vanderbilt study on the efficacy of the state’s program concludes next year.

Tennessee was one of 18 states to win money for pre-K expansion. While most states applied for the money to be used statewide, Haslam applied on behalf of just five districts, leaving other districts feeling snubbed. House minority leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh has said that the exclusion of other districts went against the state’s legal obligation to equally fund districts.

Officials in Memphis and Nashville have been fighting for more pre-K funding for several years. Because of reluctance on the state level, they’ve largely relied on local funding in the past.

“We are very pleased to have the opportunity that this grant affords us and we accept the challenge,” Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a prepared statement.

In both Nashville and the Memphis area, officials hope the grant will not only increase the number of public pre-K seats available, but improve the pre-K experience overall.

“Because of the way the grant was written, it really changes the quality of programs across the district,” said Metro Nashville director of schools Jesse Register.

Some of the grant money will be spent on professional development for district pre-K teachers and Head Start teachers, as well as elementary school principals. Lisa Wiltshire, the director of early education for Metro Schools, said the part of grant about professional development was written by pre-K teachers, who know what kinds of trainings and support are most appropriate.

The grant will also allow the school systems to track students through the third grade.

“We’ll really be able to have good data to show what’s working,” Wiltshire said.

Pre-K centers will also feature wraparound services, including health and mental health screenings, nutrition services, and workforce development for parents.

“The idea is to intervene early, and to get students and our families on the right track early in the process, and ensure they stay on track,” Register said.

Other components of the grant include accountability measures  — researchers from Vanderbilt will evaluate pre-K centers — and “age-appropriate assessments” for prekindergarteners.

A comptroller’s report three years ago suggested that Tennessee’s current pre-kindergarten program wasn’t boosting achievement throughout elementary school, and results from the ongoing Vanderbilt study are mixed.

But leading researcher Dale Farran told Chalkbeat that policymakers should look at what makes pre-K programs effective. She said that because many of the pre-K classes she and her team studied were not high-quality, a decision to halt pre-K expansion based on those classrooms might be premature.

In 2013-14, 18,000 children were enrolled in Tennessee’s pre-K program, at a cost of $85 million.

Read the state’s application here, and more of our coverage on attempts to expand pre-K here.