Tennessee might now be in running for federal pre-K money

Gov. Bill Haslam submitted a letter of intent last week to apply for a federal grant to expand prekindergarten after all, a spokesman for the governor told Chalkbeat.

That’s good news for pre-K advocates and education officials in Memphis and Nashville, who are determined to expand pre-K with or without help from the state. If Tennessee gets one of ten pre-K expansion grants, the state could receive up to $70 million in the next four years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said while he was on tour in Tennessee last week. Thirty-four other states are qualified for the grants.

Initially, Haslam said that he would wait to decide on pre-K expansion until at least next year, when a Vanderbilt University study on the effectiveness of the state’s current model is released. But last week he submitted a letter of intent for the grant, although he still will not alter the state pre-K programming until he sees the study results.

“We’re working to understand more about what the state’s long-term role would be when it comes to funding and didn’t want to take Tennessee out of contention at this time,” an aide for Haslam told Chalkbeat.
A comptroller’s report three years ago suggested that Tennessee’s current pre-kindergarten program wasn’t boosting achievement throughout elementary school, causing a group of  legislators, led by Bill Dunn, a Republican representative from Knoxville, to assert pre-K was a bad investment for the state.

Early results from the five-year Vanderbilt study Haslam is waiting on suggest that students might not sustain academic gains in elementary school, but might develop other skills, like time management, that could serve them in middle and high school.

Education officials in Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis have expressed interest in the federal funds, which they say will help raise achievement in their districts. Director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Jesse Register, who this year began rolling out a plan for universal pre-K in his city by 2018, looked into applying for the federal grant directly, but was denied.

At the time he said he was hopeful that Haslam would apply.

“I would love for Nashville to be a model, where federal funding flowed in to offer pre-K on a wider scale,” he said.