State Day Care

State paid for largely ignored study that finds no benefit in pre-K program

Suppose the state of Tennessee had experts evaluate a program on which it proposed to spend millions in taxpayer money. Suppose the experts said the program was not effective and did not achieve its goals. Then suppose the state planned to spend the money anyway.

You'd think that would be a big story, wouldn't you?

Then why was such a study, issued last week, almost totally ignored by the state's media?

Gov. Phil Bredesen has grown the state's pre-kindergarten program from 3,000 students to more than 17,000. He proposes to continue growing the program until he leaves office, leaving the state well along into universal pre-K. Budget problems this last session prevented his adding another $25 million to the program but he remains committed to making it his legacy.

The state Comptroller and the Department of Education hired a Columbus, Ohio firm called Strategic Research Group to do studies on the existing program and to check its outcomes. The study last week concludes pre-K helps students entering kindergarten, but by second grade there is no statistical difference between students who were in pre-K and those that were not. In other words, the short-term effects of the program disappear by second grade. This was true across all sub-groups, male/female, white/non-white, and low to moderate incomes.

Have you heard about this? Did you read about it? Did you hear it on television?

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, has been asking questions about the efficacy of the pre-K program since it began. He has been asking the administration for proof spending millions to establish a pre-K program will produce results. He has argued that any new money for education should go to K-12 education. His questions have been largely ignored. The only thing that prevented a huge jump in pre-K spending this last year was a budget deficit. Dunn and other conservative House members, like state Rep. Frank Niceley, have long been advocates of value added testing— looking at outputs to determine the effectiveness of education programs.

If you raise questions about the wisdom of committing the state to universal pre-K, in a state where there are limited education dollars to begin with, you are generally attacked as "hating little children." Facts, studies, and test scores are ignored, because, well, why isn't it a great thing to offer education for 4-year-olds?

Pre-K is really state-funded day care for the middle class.

If you survey the literature on the subject, you will find studies that question putting children in a controlled education environment at an early age. Often, young boys are just not mature enough for such a setting, which leads to behavioral problems. Go to the Web and look up educational studies of pre-K expulsions. The rate of pre-K students being expelled is 3.2 times higher than children in K-12. Boys are 4.5 times as likely to be expelled as girls. Blacks are twice as likely to be expelled as whites and Latinos.

There are defenders of Tennessee's pre-K program who criticize the recent study. They say it is based on a small sample because the program hasn't been around that long and is not representative of the latest upgrades in teachers and materials. Does this mean we should put in a state-wide program for a number of years before we can find out if it works?

There are 40 states that have pre-K programs, totaling 800,000 children. When the Legislature takes up the issue again, the state Department of Education needs to bring in studies in other states that demonstrate the effectiveness of the program and look especially at Georgia, the first state to offer universal pre-K.

The administration is asking critics to prove why they shouldn't do pre-K. That is exactly backwards. If the state wants pre-K they need to demonstrate it will have a long term educational benefit.

Tennessee has had two studies done, neither showing any advantage to its pre-K program. If there are advantages, it is up to the Bredesen administration to provide proof before we stumble down the road to millions obligated.

Anybody remember TennCare?