For the first time, Tennessee awards pre-K funding based on quality, not quantity

Tennessee will spread $84 million in state funding across more than 900 pre-K classrooms next school year under a new awards process designed to incentivize the quality of programming over volume of students.

The awards, announced Tuesday by the State Department of Education, will go to nearly 95 percent of the state’s 146 districts to serve at-risk 4-year-olds.

The competitive process marks a major shift aimed at tying state funding to quality for Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program. In a landmark study released in 2015, the program came under fire by researchers of Vanderbilt University who found it mostly ineffective.

“High-quality early learning opportunities are one of the best investments we can make in our kids,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. “We want to ensure we are supporting strong early learning opportunities for our students with the greatest need, and that is reflected in the updated application process and in these grantees.”

For Tennessee’s largest school district in Memphis, the new investments will mean about $10 million for 112 pre-K classrooms in Shelby County Schools.

The full list of funding and districts statewide is here for 2017-18.

Tennessee’s public pre-K program launched in 2005 with the goal of helping students from low-income families start kindergarten on an equal footing with their more affluent peers. But the Vanderbilt study shocked pre-K advocates with findings that the program’s benefits actually faded by the second grade. State lawmakers responded in 2016 with a law that, among other things, put the onus on local districts to address some of the findings.

As part of the overhaul, the Tennessee Department of Education created a new funding application that asked districts for details about standards such as curriculum and how they’ll structure their days to maximize student engagement and learning.

Districts that received funding for next year also will adhere to the state’s first pre-K evaluation system to determine teacher effectiveness.