Fore Note: Just how many studies need to be done that prove Pre-K is a bust and a waste of money?

Vanderbilt study finds Pre-K gains may not last long

MIKE KRAFCIK-6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - New research coming out of Vanderbilt University shows that children benefit from pre-kindergarten programs, but those benefits don't last.

Pre-K programs have been a hotbed of controversy with calls for public funding cuts from some politicians, while others have been staunch defenders.

The study put observers in classrooms with 1,000 students across the state, tracking their progress since the students enrolled in the program until the first grade.

In the latest update of the multi-year study, researchers at Vanderbilt reported those in Tennessee's Voluntary pre-K Program had academic gains in math and language don't stay ahead of their peers, perhaps not even through kindergarten.

"So far, pre-K is very much like paying $1,000 for a McDonald's hamburger. You eat the hamburger, it puts a dent in your hunger, but it wears off quickly and you wish you had your money back," said State Rep. Bill Dunn.

Dunn has been a vocal critic of the program, which launched in 2005 under then Governor Phil Bredesen. Tennessee now has a voluntary pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because of low-family income. It will provide $85 million in funding for the current year to fund 935 pre-k classes enrolling about 18,000 students.

Currently Tennessee is eligible for $64.3 million in federal funding from a program launched by President Obama. The "Preschool for All" program launched could provide pre-K for 7,861 additional more students, requiring a $6.4 million in matching funds from the state.

Haslam has yet to decide whether to take the money.

"Our job as legislators is not to chase dollars, but do what's best for education," said Rep. Dunn.

Shelby Haun is the Director of Pre-School and Head Start programs for Anderson County.

The county has 11 pre-K classrooms through the state's program.

"It's a lot more whole than academics," Haun said.

Haun says the results of the Vanderbilt study show it's too early to tell if Pre-K impacts a child's educational outcome. Haun would like to see the program expand. She says there is a waiting list filled with 3 and 4-year-olds in the county.

"I would love to see more classes here in Anderson County. I'd love to meet the needs of all the children," Haun said.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson says the program is worth it, despite the study's mixed results.

"There is nothing definite in that study, and we can't take that one piece and pull out the parts we don't like. We need to look at the whole body and dig deeply into that data," said Johnson.

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman have both said they will not be making decisions until the full study wraps up.

On Tuesday, Gov. Haslam Spokesman David Smith added, "Until we know more about the effectiveness of pre-K in Tennessee, he will maintain funding at its current levels."

Huffman added in a statement that the latest results raise "key questions."

"We also want to continue to look at outcomes over the next two years, since many early childhood studies show stronger longer term results," he wrote.

The study would wrap up in 2015, after which the study's researchers would collect and analyze data from the students up until the third grade.

The study's researchers are in the process of applying for funding to follow those same students all the way up until eighth grade.