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VOL. 124 | NO. 113 | Thursday, June 11, 2009

Lawmakers Debate Funding Governor's Pre-K Program

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press Writer

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Future funding for Tennessee's pre-kindergarten program is becoming a sticking point among Democrats and Republicans as the legislative session ends.

Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen has proposed shifting about $25 million currently drawn from the state's lottery proceeds to the state's general fund budget. But Republicans say they instead want to take the money out of lottery reserves.

Republicans say tapping the reserves would prevent the need to make cuts in other areas, such as the state's mental health agencies.

"Obviously we've got a billion dollar shortfall, so every dollar in the general fund is at a premium," said Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville. "So, what the Republicans are looking at is keeping the funding the way it is right now, where a small portion of it comes from the lottery proceeds and that frees up general fund dollars for the mentally ill and other programs that are needed."

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville said he understands but disagrees with the governor's move to fund the entire pre-K program out of the general fund.

"He wants that to be his legacy, I understand that, but I don't think that's necessarily fiscally responsible," he said.

Ramsey said he's discussed the GOP funding plan with Bredesen.

"Obviously he doesn't like that. But ... we're going to put that on the table in the Senate and see how many votes we get for it."

Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis warn that funding parts of the program with dwindling reserves could endanger the future of the program aimed at 4-year-olds from poor families.

Kyle says Democrats "are not going to back off" on the source of the pre-K budget.

"Senate Democrats support the governor's proposal to fund pre-K as it is," he said.

Since 2005, Bredesen has created 786 new pre-K classrooms serving 15,000 children. There are now a total of 934 state-funded pre-K classrooms in the state, serving about 18,000 children.

When Bredesen first decided to expand the state's small pre-K program, lawmakers would only agree to fund it from the state's lottery proceeds.

Since then, lawmakers have agreed to a $58 million expansion in the program paid for with general fund money. This year the governor has proposed shifting the original $25 million to the general fund so the lottery will be more dedicated to paying for college scholarships.

Rep. John Deberry, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the House Children and Family Affairs Committee, said pre-K should be properly funded to ensure that it's as effective as possible.

"I would rather see us fund pre-K in a responsible fashion to where we know that we have made a commitment to pre-K over the long run," he said. "That's what the general fund is for ... to take care of the people's business, which is educating their children."

However, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin said his members are not convinced that pre-K better prepares children for school.

"It looks like we're getting nothing for our dollars," Casada said. "We're at crossroads for state government, and we need to start cutting things we're spending money on that aren't producing results."

The state Department of Education recently started a new evaluation of the effectiveness of Tennessee's pre-K program.

The five-year, $6 million study is being funded by a grant from U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Science, and pre-K classes across the state participate on a voluntary basis.

___

Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig contributed to this story.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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