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VOL. 133 | NO. 102 | Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Leaders of Local Pre-K Expansion Say Opposition More About State Funding

By Bill Dries

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Since three of the four major Republican contenders for Tennessee governor said at a Memphis forum in April that they oppose universal prekindergarten, the forces behind such a plan for Shelby County have been talking with them about their position.

Leaders of the local effort expect no state funding and that an $8 million federal grant for pre-K that runs out in about a year won’t be renewed.

Mike Carpenter

“We quickly set them straight,” said Mike Carpenter, executive director of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, of the interaction with Republican contenders Bill Lee, Diane Black and Randy Boyd following the televised forum by the Greater Memphis Chamber.

“We want to educate those candidates and make sure that they understand the value of early education,” Carpenter said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.” “I think they have a better understanding now of the issues.”

The three candidates were asked if they support universal pre-K and each said they did not, citing “mixed results” in a 2015 Vanderbilt University study of the effect of pre-K on students going forward. Boyd said he might favor a pilot project, but also cited mixed results.

“They are talking about the whole state of Tennessee,” said Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad, referring to the major Democratic and Republican contenders for governor – none of them from Shelby County.

“I’m not running for governor. I haven’t analyzed the whole state of Tennessee and what the whole state of Tennessee needs,” Conrad said. “I think I know what Memphis and Shelby County needs. And I think if one of those five people get elected – and I think that they will … hopefully they will come to see the importance of high quality pre-K for people who want to do it. You can’t debate it.”

Kemp Conrad

In the audience at the chamber forum, in addition to Conrad, were a number of other local elected, civic and business leaders involved in the effort to expand prekindergarten in Shelby County from the current 7,000 seats to 8,500 by 2022. The plan also calls for wrap-around services for families prior to pre-K and for measuring results beyond pre-K. The expansion to 8,500 seats is to be funded by $16 million from city and county governments with private donors and philanthropies raising another $24 million for the bulk of the “early childhood” reach of the effort.

City and county government commitments begin with $8 million by July 1, 2019, to replace the $8 million federal grant.

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

“I don’t know that you need a one-size-fits-all approach to the state, which is what I think some of the folks were saying in the debate there,” Conrad said. “I think this is an example of how this community has come together to structure a program that we think is best for Memphis and Shelby County. Would we like to have more state funding? Absolutely.”

But Carpenter points out that state funding of prekindergarten has remained the same for a decade at just under $86 million. Voluntary pre-K currently serves less than half of the eligible 4-year-olds in the state.

One factor cited by legislators and others who have doubts about the effectiveness of prekindergarten is the Vanderbilt study. Carpenter said the results have been “misinterpreted and mis-messaged.”

“What the study found … is that pre-K in Tennessee – voluntary pre-K – does work. That kids who had pre-K were better prepared for kindergarten than children who didn’t have pre-K,” Carpenter said. “What the study also found, though, is that those kids who did not have pre-K caught up with the kids who did and that both groups lost ground academically in grades one and two. … Part of our work is, what do we do before pre-K but also what do we do after pre-K to make sure they sustain those gains?”

Kathy Buckman Gibson

That’s where the privately funded efforts before the age of 4 blend with Shelby County Schools’ efforts in grades K-3, said Kathy Buckman Gibson, on the board of Seeding Success, the nonprofit rounding up the private money.

“We’re looking to private dollars to fund the plan before they get to pre-K – helping us raise the quality of child care, for example – helping ensure that there are home visitations to reach these children when they are first born,” she said. “And help their parents ensure that they are getting the medical care they need and that they understand how to care for these children in such a way that they are best prepared when they get to pre-K. So we are looking for private dollars.”

Those private dollars are contingent on the $16 million city and county governments would put up to replace the $8 million federal grant.

Gibson, Conrad and Carpenter all said prekindergarten, in and of itself, isn’t what Carpenter termed “an inoculation” against academic setbacks later.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” Conrad said. “You can go look at every CEO – affluent person that has had the means. They are sending their children to a pre-K program. We know this works. It’s really not even up for debate. ... Now, if you take kids and stick them in a corner without instruction or they are not interacting with their peers – no, that’s not going to work. Quality is important.”

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