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State looks to expand pre-K in Davidson, Shelby counties
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NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee is asking for $70 million in federal money to expand pre-kindergarten programs in Davidson and Shelby counties, but not for other communities around the state.
The state Education Department would act as a pass-through agency for the money to go toward adding 1,600 pre-K seats in Nashville by 2018, and 3,580 slots for the Shelby County Consortium, which includes schools in Memphis and suburban districts.
Education department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said the request doesn’t mean Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has changed its mind about pre-K funding. Haslam has said he is awaiting the results of a multi-year Vanderbilt study on the effectiveness of the program before making up his mind about an expansion.
Should Haslam ultimately decide to pursue more money for the program for 4-year-olds, he will have to persuade pre-K skeptics in the Legislature such as Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who last month called it “a liberal, feel-good program that’s not working.”
Ramsey acknowledged the federal program would not involve state money, but questioned any expansion beyond children from low-income households.
“Any dime that we spend on that is a dime that comes away from K-12,” he said.
Tennessee currently spends about $86.5 million per year on the state program, funding 935 pre-K classrooms around the state with an enrollment of more than 18,000 children.
Early results from the Vanderbilt study tracking pre-K students’ performance over time found greater academic gains than their peers who didn’t attend. But critics have said that the 2011 report also revealed that many of those advantages were erased by the time students reached grades three through five.
The authors of the early report acknowledged that one shortcoming of their data was that they did not know whether students in the “non-pre-K” group might have actually attended private pre-kindergarten programs.
The U.S. Department of Education will announce who receives the federal funding by the end of the year.