Report: States should make funding early childhood education a priority

Christi Madewell's pre-kindergarden class is pictured at Dade County Elementary.

The role of early childhood education became a source of debate when researchers at Vanderbilt University questioned the long-term impact of Tennessee's publicly funded pre-kindergarten program in September.

A different report released Wednesday by the Southern Regional Education Board contrasts Vanderbilt's findings, arguing the importance of early childhood education - saying it needs to be a funding priority for states.

"Our understanding about early childhood development has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years," said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, chairman of the SREB Early Childhood Commission, in a written statement. "Now it's time to put what we've learned into practice so that our young children get the best possible start."

The Southern Regional Education Board Commission spent portions of 2014 and 2015 with national experts studying early childhood issues and children's brain development. It concludes that investments during a child's critical early education years can increase the likelihood of high school graduation, college attainment and workforce readiness.

The findings of Vanderbilt's five-year study contrast these results, concluding that children from low-income families benefit significantly at first from pre-K, but gains fade. Researchers in this study said they were surprised to discover that students in a control group who skipped pre-K quickly caught up to their peers who had been enrolled in a program, and surpassed them by the end of third grade.

The study raises questions about several things, particularly the consistency and quality of pre-K programs in Tennessee's 95 counties, researchers said.

Recommendations by the Southern Regional Education Board Commission are based on the assumption that early childhood education is crucial to a child's brain development.

The recommendations call for boosting the quality of pre-K programs, ensuring more effective teaching, extending access, coordinating governance and budgets, and holding programs accountable for results.

Ashley Ball, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education said it is exciting that pre-K is the subject of national research because it provides valuable information.

"The SREB report highlights several things that the department is already working toward, like providing tailored professional development to early grade educators, measuring student progress through a universal kindergarten readiness screener, and working to boost the quality of all programs," Ball said.

In Chattanooga, Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for the city, said several important initiatives are in place to improve early childhood development. Each of these programs are already meeting the recommendations made in the SREB report, she said.

Donna McConnico, CEO of Signal Centers, an organization that offers early childhood education, said she's encouraged by the Southern Regional Education Board conclusions.

"It's the best investment we'll ever make," McConnico said. "The investment in a child's life at it's start is going to have a significant impact on their life and our community."

McConnico said different studies may contend different things, but she knows firsthand about the impact programs focusing on early childhood development have - specifically highlighting the launch of Baby University, which helps low-income parents set their children up for success starting at birth.

Southern Regional Education Board commissioners plan to take the report's recommendations back to their respective states for consideration and to help guide possible changes in early childhood programs.

Gov. Bill Haslam's office did not respond to requests for comment regarding the findings.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, however, said the Vanderbilt study is the "gold standard and done correctly," saying anyone that argues with its results is "out of their mind."

Dunn said he is concerned about the quality of pre-K programs statewide, and believes the more than $85 million Tennessee uses to fund pre-K programs could be used more effectively elsewhere.

"Evidence does not show that [pre-K] will make a big difference for someone," he said.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said his mind is still not made up.

"I want to see how it affects my district," he said. "I don't want to see money spent just to provide a babysitting service."

Gardenhire said he visited one local pre-K program and was extremely impressed by the instruction, and plans to visit others across his district to understand what is taking place in these classrooms.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress .com or 423-757-6592.