Study helps Tennessee lawmaker Bill Dunn slam pre-k

photo Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville

NASHVILLE - A Republican lawmaker says a final report on the state's pre-kindergarden program supports his view that the initiative "may be the largest hoax ever perpetuated on the people of Tennessee."

In a news release, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, a longtime pre-k skeptic, seized on Page 6 of the Strategic Research Group's study.

It says that "for students in grades 3-5, analyses have found either no significant effect of pre-k participation on assessment scores, or, in some cases, have found that students who attended pre-k, on average, score lower than their nonpre-k counterparts on some assessments."

"People make big promises, but nothing big is showing up in this report at all," Dunn said in an interview, charging pre-k is needlessly wasting funds better spent in areas such as teacher pay. "We were sold a silver bullet. It turns out it's made of lead."

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But in the report to the state comptroller, the Strategic Research Group specifically warns that "to consider this study a summative evaluation of the effectiveness of the pre-k program would be unfounded and unfair."

The report notes the state's pre-k program "experienced significant changes" over a 10-year period, going from a pilot project involving 600 low-income 4-year-olds in 1998-99 to a statewide program with18,000 children in the 2008-09 school year.

There were also "substantive" curriculum changes, the report noted, adding that "to evaluate the program as it exists today on the basis of outcomes experienced by students who participated in the pre-k program five or 10 years ago would be an unsound approach."

Researchers reported that participants "do show evidence of better performance in kindergarten when compared to students who did not participate in the program."

It notes the effect was more pronounced for lower-income children as measured by a common measure of poverty, participation in the free-and-reduced lunch price program.

But the report notes many schools do not test children in kindergarten. It is not until third grade that tests are given to all students, the report notes.

Moreover, researchers said that "arguably, the greatest limitation of this study is that educational records do not indicate whether students participated in any pre-k program other than Tennessee's pre-k."

Dunn was taken aback when a reporter read him portions of the report's conclusions, demanding to know, "What are you reading from?"

"They're saying this report doesn't really mean anything so we should put more money in it?" Dunn said in seeming disbelief. "Is that what you're saying?"

Dunn said the findings on the lack of long-term effect are supported by other studies, and he criticized former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who expanded the state's pre-k program statewide, for overselling program benefits.

He said proponents have claimed that each dollar of spending on pre-K produces $16 of benefits. Some supporters have claimed it has had an impact on murder rates, Dunn said.

"To me, there are a lot of places in education that could use some funding, whether you're paying teachers who are performing well," Dunn said. "There's some kids who don't have books. And we're putting a whole lot of time and money and effort and asking the taxpayers to pay for something that is not getting the glowing report that we were promised."

A top Research Study Group official did not return a reporter's call on Tuesday.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.