NASHVILLE-While one prominent lawmaker contends a new study sponsored by the state comptroller's office helps prove lasting benefits of Tennessee's prekindergarten are a "hoax," Gov. Bill Haslam disagrees.
Haslam told reporters this week the study "is a little bit more of a mixed message. Of course, Vanderbilt [University] had a study out earlier this year that showed a more positive spin on it."
That is "all the more reason we should keep doing what we're doing now," Haslam said. "Leave pre-k in place. Let's do the homework. At some point in time, I think we need an objective outside study that does measure ... over a longer period of time."
The study conducted by Strategic Research Group was intended to do just that - investigate the short- and long-term effects of Tennessee's pre-k program on students through fifth grade.
In its 60-page final report, Strategic Research Group raises questions on Page 6 about the long-term efficacy of pre-k when compared with students who never participated in the program for 4-year-olds.
But the report also stresses the unreliability of the data, noting it was impossible to say whether students who never participated in the state program may have attended private pre-k programs. The study also spanned a period from when the pre-k program was a small pilot project through a 2005 overhaul to 2008-09 when it had about 18,000 4-year-olds enrolled.
It said the program for at-risk children succeeded in its main purpose, preparing children for kindergarten, and should be continued and given more support. It also said that "to consider this study a summative evaluation of the effectiveness of the pre-k program would be unfounded and unfair."
But longtime pre-k critic Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, seized on portions of the report, saying they "should serve as a revelation for individuals who still believe pre-k is some sort of answer for long-term achievement in education. The fact is, it just isn't. It may be the largest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of Tennessee."
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, a Senate Education Committee member, said pre-k "has been a huge success in Tennessee. It has been applauded by business groups across our state and national organizations. We should be looking at ways to strengthen all the points on our education pipeline - not attack them."
Marci Young, project director for the national advocacy group Pre-K Now, said the program "is an education reform strategy with 50 years of solid research behind it."
"It is one of the most rigorously evaluated reforms that really helps states tackles achievement gaps before schilden ever set foot in a kindergarten classroom," she said. "Both the SRG study and the Vanderbilt study show that pre-k is working in Tennessee."
The Tennessee Alliance for Early Education, a state-based advocacy group, thanked Haslam for his public comments and cited work done in the Vanderbilt/Peabody Research Institute study.
The group's chairman, Diane Neighbors, said initial results of Vanderbilt's "rigorous longitudinal study prove what we have known for years: that children who attend our state's nationally recognized voluntary pre-k program fare much better than their peers who do not."
She said the SRG study assessed a pilot pre-k program created in 1998 and overhauled in 2005. The Vanderbilt study dealt solely with data from the current program, she said.
Even so, Neighbors said, "The SRG report findings suggest that Tennessee's pre-k program is doing exactly what it was designed to do - prepare our children for kindergarten."