Buyer Beware on Pre K

Are you ready to pay more sales tax to support a program no one is even sure works?

The Memphis City Council is hoping citizens can be duped into this latest hike because it’s “for the children.” Isn’t everything? In this instance, the children are Pre-K. The deal they want would put $30 million of the $47 million generated by the tax to helping 4,000 4-year-olds with the carrot being that the rest of the money would be used to lower property taxes.

Surely Memphians ill not buy into this scheme.

How many times have we heard before that a tax would be temporary or would be offset by other cuts or that it would cover a critical need? Too many to count. This one seems no different; maybe worse.

We are asked to believe that a recent Vanderbilt study shows “the early reading and math benefits of prekindergarten may diminish quickly…4-year-olds who have the benefit of early schooling are more likely to progress in kindergarten and have better school attendance.” Talk about an oxymoron! Or maybe just plain moron. The kids who get held back in kindergarten sometimes just aren’t as mature as others. As for school attendance, isn’t that mandatory anyhow?

Interesting that our newspaper chooses to headline the story “Research shows kids progress better with pre-K.” The Knoxville ABC affiliate chooses “Vanderbilt study shows pre-K gains may not last long.” The Tennessean says “Pre-K gains may not stick, Vanderbilt study finds.” The Tennessean explains:

The study probes the benefits of the state-funded preschool program, which is targeted mostly at low-income families. The early results have been closely watched by policymakers, including Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who have said they wanted to see the Vanderbilt study before deciding whether the state should invest more in preschool.

In June, Tennessee became eligible for $64.3 million in federal funds to provide pre-K to an additional 7,861 children. But the “Preschool for All” program, launched by President Barack Obama, would required a $6.4 million state funding match, and Haslam hasn’t decided whether to take the money.

After reviewing the latest results this week, Haslam and Huffman hedged, with both reiterating that they’re not ready to make decisions before the entire study wraps up.

“As the governor has said before, until we know more about the effectiveness of pre-K in Tennessee, he will maintain funding at its current levels,” spokesman Dave Smith wrote on Haslam’s behalf.

Huffman said in a written statement that the latest results raise “key questions.”

Last month, Huffman told The Tennessean he doesn’t think “it’s a given that (preschool) makes a difference” and pledged to spend the next year looking at a wide variety of early education options.

Meanwhile, the research team led by Lipsey has so far treaded lightly with findings — describing the effects of preschooling as “decidedly mixed.” They’ve asked for patience for their unprecedented study, which follows 3,000 children from age 4 through third grade, through 2015.

“This is not the final word,” Lipsey said. “We’re at this awkward interim stage where one thing has faded out and the other seems to be coming online, and neither is definitive, and here we are in the middle of a politically sensitive issue.”

At last, some sanity on the issue. Also some sanity from State Rep. Bill Dunn.

“So far, pre-K is very much like paying $1,000 for a McDonald’s hamburger. You eat the hamburger, it puts a dent in your hunger, but it wears off quickly and you wish you had your money back,” he said.

Dunn has been a vocal critic of the program, which launched in 2005 under then Governor Phil Bredesen. Tennessee now has a voluntary pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because of low-family income. It will provide $85 million in funding for the current year to fund 935 pre-k classes enrolling about 18,000 students.

There are other factors, too. Everyone knows about genius kids who can understand complicated math at 3 and 4. But often, their talents fizzle or plateau as they progress in school. Conversely, slow starters often end up excelling.

Once again, politicians want to throw money at a problem and then consider it solved and themselves heroes. Maybe Memphians won’t be bunnies this time and take the carrot. The stick will kill us.

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