Tennesseans Deserve Better Information About Pre-K

July 3, 2005 10:22PM

By Drew Johnson Governor Bredesen finally got his wish when he was able to put ink to paper and sign a $25 million expansion of Tennessee’s government-controlled pre-kindergarten program into law in a ceremony in Johnson City last month. Troublingly, parents across the state remain without useful answers from government officials concerning the effect of such a scheme on their options, their pocketbooks, and their children. In an effort to determine the impact of similar government pre-kindergarten programs on the long-term success of children, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research (TCPR) released a report on the issue. After the publication exposed a series of flaws and failures in bureaucratic pre-K efforts, the deputy press secretary to Governor Bredesen called the report “irresponsible” and “wrong.” As president of TCPR and coauthor of the report, I invite all Tennesseans to read Hard Lessons Learned: Applying 40 Years of Government Pre-K to Benefit Tennessee’s Children Today, available at, and judge for themselves if the publication is indeed “irresponsible” and “wrong.” The Tennessee Center for Policy Research is committed to delivering the highest quality and most reliable research on Tennessee policy issues. Since all TCPR publications come with a Guarantee of Quality Scholarship, we encourage the Administration to bring any errors in the report to our attention and we will quickly and publicly remedy the mistake. Statements made by the Administration and elected officials, however, do not come with a similar promise of accuracy, a problem that leaves Tennesseans poorly informed concerning the actual basis of claims made about policy issues. The current pre-K debate is a prime example of just such an issue. Based on claims made by elected officials, we began researching government endeavors in early education with the assumption that pre-K programs would produce future academic success and value to the society. The facts, however, proved quite the opposite. The programs produce little or no demonstrable advantage despite their hefty pricetags and lofty aspirations. The Georgia universal pre-K program is the best model by which to compare proposals for a statewide universal preschool in Tennessee. After ten years, the Georgia preschool program has served over 300,000 children at a cost of $1.15 billion and children’s test scores are unchanged. Yet supporters of a pre-K effort fail to mention this result. Head Start, the nation’s largest preschool program for disadvantaged children, has also not measurably improved educational outcomes. According to a study performed by the Department of Health and Human Services, “Once the children enter school there is little difference between the scores of Head Start and control children…By the end of the second year there are no educationally meaningful differences on any of the measures.” However, few legislators reference that fact. What the Administration and other advocates of pre-K programs do mention is that “every $1 invested in early learning returns $7 in societal and community benefits in the long run.” This is a troubling example of the misinformation that all too often comes from our elected officials. In truth, this figure is based on a flawed cost-benefit analysis from one study of 56 at-risk children with “retarded intellectual functioning” conducted from 1962-1965, which independent peer reviewers found to be compromised by significant sampling and methodological errors. Further undermining confidence in the results is the fact that its findings have never been replicated. Other programs used as examples of Pre-K success, such as the Carolina Abecedarian Project and the Chicago Child-Parent Center, also fail by measures of statistical analysis and, more importantly, applicability to a statewide universal pre-K program. Rather than avoiding legitimate comparisons of large government pre-K programs and attempting to sell pre-K based on completely unrelated programs, Tennessee’s elected leaders would be wise to reassess the role of government in the life of a four-year-old child. It is vital to consider who is responsible for raising, teaching, and nurturing young children. Few parents or taxpayers feel comfortable encouraging the state to assume that duty. While the Administration deserves praise for their interest in addressing the early education needs of Tennessee’s children, Tennesseans deserve government officials who make points using well-documented, fact-based evidence, rather than apples to oranges comparisons that are both “irresponsible” and “wrong.”