Six months after sobering study, bill to up pre-K quality heads to governor’s desk

When Tennessee’s public pre-kindergarten program was found lacking last year in a nationally scrutinized study, advocates of early childhood education braced for a legislative agenda this year that might scrap the initiative.

Instead, lawmakers passed a bill Monday evening designed to make Tennessee’s pre-K classrooms stronger. The measure also would put the onus on local districts to address some of the findings of the Vanderbilt University study.

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill, which was approved easily last week by the Senate. The legislation is expected to be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration has cited pre-K as a significant strategy for closing the state’s achievement gap. The governor has allotted $1 million in his proposed budget to develop a screening tool to assess kindergarten readiness as part of the effort.

The vote is a victory for advocates of early childhood education, still reeling from the five-year Vanderbilt study released last September that found that students who attended Tennessee’s public pre-K program eventually did worse in elementary school than their peers who had no pre-K at all.

At the time, the study’s researchers said they hoped that the findings would lead to improvements in the quality of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, rather than fuel efforts to end the state’s decade-old initiative.

Sponsors say the 2016 legislation aims to do just that. It will require local districts to develop plans for implementing certain “best practices” in pre-K classroom before they can receive state funds for pre-K, including offering “meaningful” professional development for teachers. The local plans also must show how the district would improve instructional alignment in pre-K classrooms with K-3 classrooms — cited by researchers as a possible reason for a drop-off in pre-K students’ academic performance by grade 3.

“We took that Vanderbilt study and said, ‘We need to improve what we’re doing,'” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, one of the sponsors. “When a (district) makes an application to the state, we need to hold them to a higher standard.”

Lead Vanderbilt researcher Dale Farran said Monday that the bill is a “great thing,” but  added that districts might struggle to develop local plans on their own.

“I’m not sure that districts will be able to give anything that’s genuine in response, because it’s so hard to do,” she said. “It’s certainly a great goal, but districts need help achieving it.”

The Vanderbilt research team has been working with Metro Nashville Public Schools to implement the best practices outlined in the bill — something that won’t be possible for every Tennessee district, she noted.

The researchers hope to release a document based on their work with Nashville to help guide other districts.

Before Monday’s vote, there was little debate in the House. But Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, a frequent pre-K critic, spoke for 10 minutes on his concerns about the current state of Tennessee’s pre-K program. Other representatives, including Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis, used the issue to urge the legislature to incorporate other Vanderbilt studies, including one on Tennessee’s Achievement School District, as the basis for future legislation.

Correction: March 28, 2016: The story has been corrected to reflect that the $1 million fiscal note was eliminated because Gov. Bill Haslam included $1 million for screening in his budget proposal.