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Ron Ramsey
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Bill Haslam

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam is adopting a wait-and-see approach to a Vanderbilt University study that calls into question the long-term impact of Tennessee's $85 million pre-kindergarten programs.

But some of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, including Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, already have different ideas and would like to see the public program end for some 18,000 4-year-olds.

Haslam said last week he prefers to wait a year to sort out issues raised by the study, which found the positive impacts of pre-K decrease to the point that by second or third grade the students who attended the program were actually falling behind their peers.

"My recommendation would be to spend the next year looking at whether it's a quality issue," Haslam told reporters. "The results are not just a Tennessee discussion; it's being held all across the country. The people who are very strong for pre-K say it's a quality issue: the reason you're not seeing any long-standing change is because it's not the right quality of program."

The governor said his response to pre-K critics and backers is "let's drill down — now that there's some major question about the long-term impact — let's see if it's a quality issue or just the structural idea that doesn't make sense."

Authors of the study, which has generated national discussion, emphasized that the latest results in their multi-year examination were inconsistent across the state. And that, they said, raises questions as to whether differences stem from variances in pre-K program quality.

They also questioned whether schools were in effect dropping the ball by not adequately integrating pre-K with kindergarten through second grade programs.

Haslam's remarks came after a meeting with Senate Republican Caucus members at their fall retreat.

During the session, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, raised the issue, telling Haslam the Vanderbilt study demonstrates "pre-K is a waste of time." He wanted to know if Haslam has given "any thought to redirecting that money" to other education programs.

Any number of majority Republicans have questioned the effectiveness of pre-K, especially after a previous examination by the Tennessee comptroller's office called long-term results into question.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, have argued the $85 million would be better spent on K-12 education. Some 18,000 children are in public pre-K programs in Tennessee. Haslam himself has continued the program but not expanded it during his five-plus years in office.

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Ramsey, the lieutenant governor, said he favors scaling back the program. But he acknowledged to reporters that won't be easy.

"Ronald Reagan used to say the closest thing to eternal life is a government program," Ramsey told reporters. "I think that's the problem with pre-K. I think it's inefficient, I don't think it's doing what it's supposed to be doing. I do think it's systemic, there's been too many studies to prove that.

"But it's hard to pull back something when you've already given it to somebody," Ramsey said. "And I don't know whether we'll ever do any more than just stop it in its tracks."

He called pre-K "a liberal, feel-good program, that somehow they get this fuzzy feeling in their heart that they're doing pre-K, yet every study shows that it's not working."

Some studies suggest pre-K does benefit students. Vanderbilt researchers say their study was unique in looking at a scaled-up, statewide program.

Still, Ramsey said he understands why Haslam wants to delve into why the existing program isn't working. But he said it certainly won't be expanded.

The chairman of the Senate K-12 Subcommittee, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said that when it comes to pre-K "right now I've got mixed feelings on it. I was surprised at the findings of that study."

Gardenhire said he'd like to look at other pre-K studies.

"I want to get some more information before I make up my mind on that," he said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow along on twitter at AndySher1.

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