Loudon school board debating value of pre-K

Discussion sparked by study indicating waning benefits

LOUDON - The Loudon County board of education began debating earlier this week whether prekindergarten learning programs are a good way to jump-start the learning process or a waste of taxpayer dollars.

In the first board workshop since four new board members were elected in August, discussion centered on a study released last month that indicates that the benefits of Tennessee's pre-K programs diminish by the second grade.

The study, conducted by the Columbus, Ohio-based Strategic Research Group, indicates that the state-funded pre-K programs are not a good use of the taxpayer's dollars, said new board member Van Shaver.

"The study shows that there are no long-term benefits to the program," Shaver said.

Although the pre-K programs are state-funded, they are implemented at considerable cost to the county, Shaver said.

According to the state Department of Education, it costs about $107,000 per classroom to fund a voluntary pre-K program, he said. Loudon County has about 158 children in the pre-K program. At 20 children per classroom, the total cost is about $850,000 per year, he said.

"The state only pays 60 percent to 70 percent of that cost," he said. "If state funding does not increase, we may see a decrease in the portion of pre-K programs funded by the state. Eventually we will be paying for everything."

The pre-K program displaces children from regular classrooms, leading to overcrowding, one of the biggest problems in Loudon County schools, Shaver said.

"The money could have been better used in the K-to-12 program," he said. "We could be getting rid of the trailers."

Gary Ubben, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, also joined the Loudon school board in August. Ubben interpreted the results of the study differently than Shaver.

The study may indicate that the advantages of pre-K programs diminish after the second grade, but it also shows important gains at the kindergarten and first-grade levels, he said.

"The study raises more questions than answers," Ubben said. "The real question it raises is what are we not doing at the second-, third- and fourth-grade levels to sustain the gains."

Ubben insists that it is too early to draw conclusions about the real effectiveness of the pre-K programs. The Strategic Research Group study will continue to be updated in coming months, he pointed out. There also are other studies being conducted in other states that may use better data, he said.

One of the problems with the most recent study is the way the sample groups were organized, he said. For various reasons, the core sample groups are not completely "pure," creating limitations from a research perspective, he said.

The study points out that ethical concerns about research practices, such as withholding pre-K education from students who qualify, would limit the ability to create a true control group.