Rep. Bill Dunn says study shows pre-K program wasteful

Tom Humphrey

NASHVILLE — The latest installment of a Vanderbilt University research project on the long-term impact of prekindergarten classes, says state Rep. Bill Dunn, reaffirms his belief that in a cost-benefit analysis the program is “like paying $1,000 for a McDonald’s hamburger.”

“It may make an initial dent on your hunger, but it doesn’t last long and you soon realize you could have done a lot more with the money spent,” the Knoxville Republican declared in a statement distributed to media last week.

The state budgets about $86 million annually for a voluntary pre-K program, which paid for 935 classes with about 18,000 students in the 2012-13 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

President Obama has proposed a program offering states federal funding to expand pre-K that, in Tennessee’s case, would mean $64 million in federal money, matched by $6.4 million in state funds, to put another 7,861 children into the classes, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.

In Memphis, the City Council last week approved a measure calling for a vote this fall on whether to increase the local sales tax by a half-cent per dollar with $30 million of the projected revenue earmarked for expanded pre-K programs, according to The Commercial Appeal. The rest would go to reduce property tax rates.

Dunn, who has become the Legislature’s leading critic of pre-K, adamantly opposes any expansion and suggested in an interview that the state should instead be considering alternatives that would scale back the present program.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who has voiced interest in pre-K expansion at some point, was asked about the latest Vanderbilt study results last week and he remains comfortable with the status quo for now. Similar sentiments were voiced by House Speaker Beth Harwell.

“The results they just reported were a little discouraging in terms of the amount of gain that those pre-K students held onto,” Haslam said in Jackson, according to TNReport. “But we think there are other things to measure and our commitment is to keep funding at its current level until we see another year of two of the study and then we’ll decide from there.”

Vanderbilt education researchers have been tracking 4-year-old students who enrolled in Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program (VPK) since 2009, and plans call for continuing to monitor the youngsters through 2015. About 3,000 children are involved.

While the academic or cognitive skills of youngsters attending pre-K were no different from those who did not attend in later years, the researchers saw positives in “noncognitive” matters.

A Vanderbilt summary of the results released last week:

n “TN-VPK children made significantly greater gains on measures of literacy, language, and math over the pre-k year, and were rated by their teachers as better prepared for kindergarten and having better social skills and work-related skills than similar children who did not attend TN-VPK.

n “By the end of the kindergarten and first grade years, the academic achievement differences between children who attended TN-VPK and those who did not had diminished and were no longer statistically significant. Similarly, ratings of academic preparedness and classroom behavior by the first grade teachers showed no differences between TN-VPK participants and nonparticipants.

n “ Significant TN-VPK effects were found on some important “noncognitive” aspects of performance at the end of the kindergarten and first grade years: fewer TN-VPK participants were retained in kindergarten than nonparticipants and their school attendance in first grade was somewhat better.”

Overall, about 4 percent of those attending pre-K classes were held back, or retained, for a second year in kindergarten versus 8 percent of those who had not attended the classes, the study said. In a more closely monitored group of the children, the difference was less pronounced — 6.2 percent for nonparticipants, 4.1 percent for participants.

First-graders who had attended pre-K were also less likely to miss classes in the first grade — on average 3 1/2 days less than nonparticipants, the study states.

“There is no apparent consensus about what TN-VPK is expected to accomplish,” wrote the researchers, led by Professors Mark W. Lipsey and Dale Farren of Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute. “If the expectation is that the economically disadvantaged children who attend TN-VPK will enter kindergarten better prepared, this research shows that TN-VPK fulfills that expectation.

“TN-VPK children gained more on early achievement measures during the pre-k year than children who did not attend and were rated as better prepared by their kindergarten teachers. If the expectation is that one year of TN-VPK will make these children perform better throughout their school careers, it is too early to tell how effective the program is,” they wrote.

Dunn said the professors are saying pre-K is a “mixed bag” to justify more spending of grant money, while his view is the report is really “98 percent not good and 2 percent wait-and-see.” He depicted the findings on attendance and retention as inconsequential.

“We need to have a real discussion about this whole report and exactly what we are achieving, if anything, from pre-K,” he said. “I’m happy the governor has pushed the pause button so we’ll have an opportunity for those discussions.”

The report, he said, indicates that money being spent on pre-K could be “allocated better to get a better outcome.”

One alternative, he said, would simply be to use the funding to increase pay of good teachers.

Another would be to revise the ongoing “Books from Birth” program, which lets parents of youngsters ages 5 or younger sign up for free children’s books delivered by mail.

“We could use that delivery system as a way to work in teaching lessons along with the book reading,” he said. “It would cost next to nothing and encourage a child-parent education bond.”

Yet another option, Dunn said, would be to substitute the current pre-K program for one targeting “truly at-risk children,” sending them to summer school before they begin kindergarten “when there are empty classrooms and teachers are available” for “a short period of time and two-thirds less expense.”