Kids Come Last in State’s Flawed Pre-K Scheme

February 11, 2008 11:05PM

Drew Johnson “It’s for the kids.” That cliché rang in the ears of Tennesseans in 2005 when Gov. Phil Bredesen made his pitch to wildly expand the state’s Pre-Kindergarten program and put state government—which by nearly every measure fails miserably at educating five to 18 year olds—in the business of educating (and babysitting) four-year-olds.Now the governor’s taxpayer-funded Pre-K program has morphed into an unfortunate scheme that has turned four-year-olds into political pawns, while failing to benefit the children it claims to help. Despite this, the governor is calling on the legislature to allocate an additional $25 million for Pre-K on top of the program’s current $87.5 million budget.Thanks to a recently released study, Tennesseans are now able to see how poorly the state’s Pre-K scheme performs. The study, conducted by Strategic Research Group, found that in most cases, children who attended the taxpayer-funded Pre-K program perform no better in the classroom than those who did not. Successes of the Pre-K scheme uncovered by the study, such as higher second grade Social Studies scores by males who attended Pre-K, were offset by troubling failures. Students who attended Pre-K, for example, actually fared worse on a third grade math assessment. By the fourth grade, white females who participated in Pre-K scored lower on reading evaluations than other white females who never stepped foot inside a Pre-K classroom. Disturbingly, Bredesen and the architects of Tennessee’s Pre-K scheme likely knew the program would do little to help its students. Georgia’s taxpayer-funded Pre-K program, which served as the template for the Tennessee Pre-K plan, was considered a disastrous failure two full years before Tennessee copied the program. Ten years into Georgia’s Pre-K experiment, after serving 300,000 children at a cost of $1.15 billion, there was no difference between the standardized test scores of students who attended the Pre-K program and those who did not.Why, then, would the governor and many state legislators so ardently support a program that seemed destined to fail? Because the Pre-K program was never about the children: the scheme was aimed at benefiting the teachers union. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state’s teachers union and one of the state’s primary sources of campaign contributions, was the chief lobbying force behind Tennessee’s Pre-K scheme. From the TEA’s perspective, Pre-K is a jobs program for teachers and, thus, a source for new dues-paying members.If the governor and Tennessee’s legislators are serious about helping children succeed, they should change course. One option is to take the $25 million the governor wants to throw at the existing Pre-K program and offer 4,900 families a $5,100 scholarship—the per child cost of the Pre-K scheme—to send at-risk four-year-olds to the public or private Pre-K of the parents’ choice. The governor and most legislators would never support a plan that would threaten to shrink the Pre-K scheme, even if it was in the best interest of the children of Tennessee. Why? Because Pre-K isn’t really “for the kids.” Pre-K is for the teachers union and the politicians they help get elected.