Once seeking to scrap pre-K, Tennessee’s biggest pre-K critic votes to improve it

When a thorough study of Tennessee’s public pre-kindergarten program last year suggested the program actually set kids back, state Rep. Bill Dunn was validated. The Knoxville Republican had been railing against the state’s pre-K program for years, calling it a waste of money that should be dropped in favor of other investments in early childhood education.

But in a House subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, pre-K’s most vocal opponent gave the program a second chance. Dunn voted in support of a bill that would keep the state’s Voluntary Pre-K program for low-income students, and make it better.

Rep. Bill Dunn (Marta W. Aldrich )

The bill, which would help require certain “best practices” in pre-k classrooms, passed and now goes to the House Education Instruction and Programming Committee. The support of Dunn means the legislation likely has overcome its most formidable hurdle in the House.

“It tries to make the best out of a situation that I think, if you look at the Vanderbilt study, should cause a lot of concerns to people,” Dunn said before the vote.

His reluctant support reflects the key lawmaker’s acquiescence to the commitment of Gov. Bill Haslam and the State Department of Education to improving the state’s pre-K program, viewed as a significant tool in closing the achievement gap. Rather than offering a knee-jerk response to the troubling Vanderbilt study that questioned the power of pre-K, Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have taken a measured approach directed at refining the program.

The landmark study, released in October by researchers at Vanderbilt University, showed that children who attended Tennessee’s public pre-K programs did better than their peers in kindergarten, but that their academic performance flattened out by the second and third grades — and eventually they did worse in elementary school than did their peers who had no pre-K education at all.

Haslam had been waiting to see the results of the five-year study before deciding whether to expand pre-K. This year, he included funding in his proposed budget to pay for improvements.

The legislation addresses some of the researchers’ takeaways, including concerns about the quality of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, an initial lack of investment in teacher development, and a transition to possibly mediocre early elementary school programs.

Specifically, the proposal also calls for developing a plan to better coordinate between pre-K classrooms and elementary schools so that elementary-grade instruction builds upon pre-K classroom experiences; engaging parents and families of students throughout the school year; and delivering relevant and meaningful professional development for teachers.

All of those practices already are in action at Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ model pre-K centers, according to Dana Eckman, the district’s director of early childhood learning, who testified in support of the bill.

“We want this for every child and family who attends a voluntary pre-K program,” Eckman said. “If we’re going to invest in children, let’s invest in the right resources, not to only get a ‘return on our investment,’ but to have an impact on students that will be sustained … for the rest of their lives.”

Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K was spearheaded by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2005, answering a call from researchers and educators to serve low-income students as 4-year-olds to get them on equal footing with their more affluent peers by kindergarten. Statewide enrollment jumped from 9,000 students during its pilot year to 18,000 within three years, which has since remained steady.

The bill that advanced on Wednesday is sponsored by Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who noted that the inequities that the original program sought to fix remain especially prevalent in his home city. He encouraged his colleagues to use the Vanderbilt study to inform improvements to the state’s existing pre-K program.

“A lot of times we want to just throw things out, but then we just create something new … and have the same problems all over again,” White said. “One of the best things that can happen to us as we go through the process over the years is we learn from studies from higher ed.”

Dunn, however, reminded fellow legislators that pre-K isn’t the only solution to early learning challenges. He said the money ultimately might be better spend in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.

“We have very limited resources,” Dunn said.


Correction: An earlier version of this story said that this bill came with a $1 million fiscal note. The bill was amended to remove the $1 million cost of implementation, which would have gone to the development of a kindergarten readiness screening test.