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Jennifer Andrews / Contributed photo

Your future mayor might be at home watching Daniel Tiger right now. Or digging in the mud for worms. Or learning how to control his or her emotions in between playing pretend with new friends and practicing ABCs and 123s. Children are full of promise and can grow up to do great things. But first, we have to give them a chance to thrive through quality early childhood education opportunities.

Locally, the number one barrier families face to providing their children with these foundational experiences outside of the home is high cost. Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K program, known as VPK, is the answer.

Unfortunately, Tennessee's coveted VPK slots are available to only 22% of four-year-olds. Thousands of children and families across the state end up on waitlists that never pan out.

The good news is that for the first time in 15 years, we can make pre-K an option for more Tennessee children. By working together and making our voices heard, we have a fighting chance to pass legislation — Senate Bill 2179 and its companion House Bill 2201 — that would dedicate sports betting revenues to increase the availability of VPK.

Locally, the expansion of VPK would provide an opportunity for Hamilton County Schools to collaborate with existing early childhood providers to ensure all 4-year-olds whose families want them to attend pre-K have the opportunity, no matter where they live in the county.

As a mom of two young children, I can't think of a more worthy proposition. Every day, I see firsthand the impact that engaging play, exposure to new activities, socialization with other children, and the love and support from early educators on my own kids. These are the foundational elements from which their future success in the classroom and in life will be built. And they're the very things children experience in a high-quality pre-K program.

While we have made some progress, Chattanooga and Hamilton County have a long way to go toward ensuring more access to high-quality learning opportunities for our youngest residents.

A recent countywide survey by Chattanooga 2.0 found 96% of families across income and demographic lines say early childhood education is important to their child's development and future life success, but cost is the number one barrier to access.

Make your voice heard

Tell your lawmakers to support expanded pre-K with supplemental funding through Senate Bill 2179 and its companion House Bill 2201. The bills would dedicate sports betting revenues to increase the availability of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program known as VPK.

Find your Tennessee legislators and their phone numbers at www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/

In 2021, Hamilton County Schools shared that 89% of kindergarten students who scored low on their readiness assessment were still behind by the time they reached third grade. Research also shows that third-grade reading and math proficiency is the best predictor of on-time graduation and, subsequently, future life success. What happens during the first five years of a child's life matters. And if children across our county are going to improve in literacy and numeracy, we need to be willing to provide them with the resources and supports to grow and thrive.

That said, expansion of our VPK program is long overdue. It's a proven tool for academic success, with demand and support from voters across Tennessee. A recent voter poll conducted by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education shows 89% believe VPK should be available to all Tennessee 4-year-olds, and 87% support increased funding to make that possible.

The impact of Pre-K goes well beyond the poll numbers. Talk to any parent or teacher involved with Hamilton County's VPK program, and I'm confident you'll hear story after story about the transformational effects of pre-K.

Businesses also benefit from two-generation investment in pre-K. Parents are more productive in the workforce when their children are cared for in quality early learning environments. And it should go without saying: Our children are the future workforce, and their futures shouldn't be up for debate.

But as I write this, policymakers at the state Capitol in Nashville are debating the merits of pre-K expansion. As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, community leaders and concerned citizens, we must have a say.

Our state lawmakers need to hear from as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, to ensure parents have more pre-K choices and children have more pre-K opportunities. If you support expanding quality pre-K for the first time in 15 years through SB 2179 / HB 2201, call or email your state legislators.

Let them know: Tennessee children deserve the opportunity to thrive in pre-K.

Jennifer Andrews is director of Early Childhood Strategies at Chattanooga 2.0.

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