During his last term, Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter eased the state into the TennCare program. With the existing Medicaid population and managed care, the program did not break the bank, and indeed slowed the growth of the Medicaid program.
Over the course of the next eight years of the Republican Gov. Don Sundquist's administration, the program grew to the point that one in four Tennesseans was on it. It consumed all the revenue growth, leaving no money for other initiatives. When the recession of 2001-2002 caused revenue to dip, the state could no longer bear the burden of TennCare. The financial crisis led to an all-out effort to enact a state income tax. When that failed, the legislature did what it usually does—it raised the sales tax.
TennCare was like a flesh-eating virus that consumed the state budget, destroyed the Sundquist administration, and, in seeking an income tax to pay for it, left Sundquist a failure, his reputation in tatters.
Gov. Phil Bredesen used draconian cuts to get the TennCare budget under control, and he has had a booming economy to generate revenue for his projects and to increase spending for such big-ticket items as education. But Bredesen has his own hobby horse, his own TennCare. He plans on leaving it to the next governor, gift-wrapped with a bow.
Bredesen has been easing the state into a pre-kindergarten program, first using lottery money and then a little general fund money to establish pilot programs across the state. His carrots have prompted local officials to jump in—like the financially feckless Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale.
It is apparent that Bredesen plans to have universal pre-K in place when he leaves office. It is his signature program and it will be his legacy.
Tennessee's education system is plagued with low test scores, and it has never been adequately funded. The test scores reveal the real need in the state is more emphasis on fifth through eighth grade. Every dime spent on pre-K is a dime not spent on the critical grades identified as needing improvement.
But if pre-K is a way to prepare children for school, get them off to a good start, and show improved results in the early grades, perhaps it would be worth the money. But is pre-K an educational tool or is it daycare for the middle class? (At-risk kids already have Head Start.)
The state Department of Education and the Comptroller's office commissioned a study by Strategic Research Group on the efficacy of the pre-K program. Very few people have taken any notice of it, except state Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, a budget hawk and a supporter of accountability in education.
The best you can say about the results is that they are inconclusive. The only clear consistent result is that African American girls benefit from pre-K reading and language arts, putting them ahead of non-pre-K non-white girls and comparable to white non-pre-K girls. There is little good news about boys, white or black. The study seems to support other studies that suggest boys (of any color) are not mature enough for a school setting at four years old.
The overall results of this study find most evidence of improvement to be inconclusive or show wide variations between the groups tested and between subject areas. The study's main recommendation is, of course, more studies as the pre-K program moves along.
Bredesen has set us on a path for a fully-funded statewide program that will be impossible to kill, impossible to fund, and with no proof it provides long-term benefits to the education system.
Bredesen has suggested, in his typical dismissive way, the Republicans are just trying to find something to oppose and he wishes it weren't his wonderful pre-K program. He seems disinclined to study data from other states or notice the faint praise for the program in his own study.
I honestly don't understand people who think putting four-year-olds in school is a good idea. But if you insist on doing it, pay for it yourself.