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Tennessee Not Applying for Early Childhood Race to the Top

October 14, 2011

The news came out on Wednesday that Tennessee will not apply for the next round of Race to the Top funding focused on improving early childhood education for high-need children.  Courtesy of the Commercial Appeal:

Tennessee will not apply for up to $60 million in onetime Race to the Top funds for early childhood education, with officials saying requirements don’t meet the state’s needs.

“It’s hard sometimes to understand why you would not attempt to secure more money,” said Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman.

“After spending a lot of time thinking about it, we feel the right decision is for us to stay out of the competition.”

The main reason, he said, is that the money cannot be used to expand existing pre-kindergarten services.

“We want to be very careful in the current fiscal environment not to take on additional activities we can’t sustain financially,” Huffman said.

. . .

Instead, through a partnership with Vanderbilt University, Tennessee is researching the effectiveness of its current investment before adding more, Huffman said.

Hardaway is disappointed.

“Saying it is not sustainable is no reason not to apply. Everything we have is sustainable. It’s just a matter of prioritizing the dollars,” he said.

“If you look at the true fiscal note, we would be saving money on remedial programs, incarceration and downturns in the economy if we had a better-educated work force.”

Combing through the article (there’s not a press release from the Department of Education or Governor’s Office that I can find), there seem to be a few rationales for this decision:

  1. The money cannot be used to expand existing services.
  2. The state is worried about starting up programs that will be paid for by the federal government in the short term, but for which Tennessee will have to keep paying after the grant period runs out.
  3. Tennessee is “researching the effectiveness of its current investment before adding more.”

Here [pdf] is the Early Childhood RTTT application Executive Summary (everything else, including the program overview, application, FAQs, transcripts of press conference calls, and more can be found here).

As for the first point, I don’t think it’s much of a response.  The application clearly is geared towards a comprehensive state-wide pre-K to Kindergarten program, integrated with social services and including data and assessment.  However, an important part of the application (just like the earlier RTTT application), is documenting existing programs and existing efforts.  The federal government is cognizant of the fact that many states already have existing pre-K programs; it just wants to ramp them up, make them more comprehensive, and make them better.  A more accurate response would have been, “Governor Haslam and the TNGOP are not interested in expanding Pre-K.”

Republicans in Tennessee have, in general, had a baffling (and generally negative) relationship with pre-K.  Most of them (with the exception of Zach Wamp of “read good” fame) are sort-of OK with existing services, but take every opportunity to trumpet findings showing that pre-K is of limited help (even when those findings should be ignored).  Of course, Sen. Ron Ramsey, wielding considerable power considering Governor Haslam’s deference to the priorities of Tennessee Republicans in the General Assembly, is on the record as not being a fan of Pre-K.  So, there’s that.

Let me just diverge here and say that when Rep. Dunn (R-Knoxville) says that Pre-K “may be the largest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of Tennessee,” he needs to spend some time learning about the issue before spouting off politically-charged gibberish.  (Quote courtesy of Tennessee Report).

As for the second point, it is true that the application includes a requirement in the “budget” section that a state must demonstrate that the programs it implements “can be sustained after the grant period ends to ensure that the number and percentage of Children with High Needs served by Early Learning and Development Programs in the State will be maintained or expanded.” (p. 12)  However, the “we’re committing ourselves to spending more” argument has two problems: (1) The same argument was made, and rejected  during the debate over the original RTTT application (see # 2 in this post) and (2) As Rep. Hardaway points out, it’s all about spending priorities.  The General Assembly made the decision in 2010 that it wanted to go after federal dollars, and potentially put the state on the hook for sustaining expenditures down the line, because turning around the worst schools, reforming teacher evaluations, and creating great teachers and leaders were goals in which it is worthwhile to invest.

I have been clear about my opinion on this issue: Early childhood education, especially for at-risk kids, is equally worthy, if not more so, of our time and tax dollars compared to spending on revamping teacher evaluation and tenure.

It’s the third point that troubles me the most.  Commissioner Huffman is certainly aware of studies like the Perry Preschool Study (discussed here) and Tennessee’s own Project STAR that show the very real effects of pre-K and early childhood intervention.  To pawn our lack of interest in RTTT funds for early childhood education off on “we’re still studying it” is disingenuous.

The fact is, while Republicans are in charge of state government, Tennessee will not be very interested in Pre-K in general, and certainly not in expanding it, even with the offer of millions of federal dollars.  It’s a political decision, pure and simple.  Someone just needs to say that.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Hunter permalink
    October 18, 2011 2:02 pm

    “I have been clear about my opinion on this issue: Early childhood education, especially for at-risk kids, is equally worthy, if not more so, of our time and tax dollars compared to spending on revamping teacher evaluation and tenure.”

    I agree as well. I will say – I do think it’s important to get both right though. But yes, if we have only $1 to spend instead of $2, I’d put it towards early childhood education before a new evaluation system.

    As far as the early learning RTTT competition, I’m not sad to see Tennessee not apply. There are lots of string attached with federal monies, and honestly, I think history will question the “success” of RTTT round 1 for states. While I agree there were some politics at play, missing out on $60 million (while it is a lot of money) is not the end of the world.

    I really wish the state would focus on providing supports specifically for ages 0-3, when kids are in an especially sensitive development period for language, literacy, social and emotional growth. Pre-K is great too, but age 4 is almost too late. That is not necessarily a call for more state supported services – but rather, I think the state can be a leader in educating informal care providers and the affiliated social networks where these individuals spend their time.

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