There are a lot of red hot button issues in education gaining attention across Tennessee: vouchers, Common Core State Standards, and state charter authorizers. Many people have strong feelings about these subjects, but they tend to be just that: feelings. Too often these feelings dictate which policies we pursue, often in the face of evidence. For each of these there is a dearth of tried and true evidence supporting or disproving the success of these initiatives, yet our city and state presses on and both private and public funds investing veritable fortunes in these programs. However, there is one initiative that is quietly diminishing in Memphis despite a plethora of evidence for success: pre-K.
With major budgetary shortfalls looming this coming year, Shelby County Schools (SCS) plans to close at least 40 of the 188 pre-K classrooms in the district, probably more when all is said and done. Many schools already know the fate of their pre-k program; I know my school does. This should save the district approximately $130 a week per child, or $6,480 a year. However, this feels like an effort to steal from Peter to pay Paul when weighing the long-term academic and societal gains against the short-term savings associated with strong pre-K programs.
Tennessee’s Volunteer pre-K program (TN-VPK) began as a pilot program in 1998 under Gov. Sunquist. Gov. Bredeson expanded the program and increased the rigor of the standards. A handful of studies have evaluated the short-term effects of the TN-VPK program, most recently a study conducted by Vanderbilt University. This study found that those in TN-VPK program were better prepared academically, socially, and behaviorally for Kindergarten than their peers. However, critics of the program are right to state that the studied effects diminished over time. The Vanderbilt study found that the academic gains typical of pre-K plateaued by 1st grade, other studies have found the gains extended to 4th grade. Furthermore, the Vanderbilt study found that those who participated in TN-VPK were less likely to be held back and had a higher attendance rate in the subsequent grades. For all these reasons and more Metro Nashville Public Schools plans to vastly expand its pre-K program so that by 2018 all students can attend.
There are many other studies in Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan and Texas with findings that build on the long term benefits uncovered in the Vanderbilt study. One of the first and most prominent examinations of pre-K is the HighScope Perry Preschool Study in Michigan. This longitudinal analysis not only saw the academic effects of pre-K apparent through 4th grade, participants at age 40 were also found to have higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to earn a high school degree. An increase in earning potential means an increase in taxes, which actually produced a substantial return on the investment for pre-K in Michigan. For similar reasons, the Greater Memphis Chamber and the city’s business community endorsed the pre-K initiative. In short, not only does pre-K prepare young people for their next years in school, but also for the long haul of life.
The value of pre-K is underscored by the dangers that threaten the most vulnerable of young people in urban environments. Robin Karr-Morse, a child development expert who works with the Urban Child Institute in Memphis, talks about the issue of toxic stress that comes with a young child living in poverty that “damages the normal development of vital emotional and social skills such as self-regulation, cooperation, empathy, problem solving.” This effect of toxic stress is a real danger in Memphis, where the infant mortality rate is among the nation’s highest. The Commercial Appeal reported that an infant dies in Shelby County every 43 hours. In two days a child will die.
This sad situation, like any other socio-economic issue, is a complex one relating to health care, pollution, crime, and, of course, education. Solutions to this problem are many and varied, but one thing can be assured: pre-K is part of the solution. In the short-term, students who attend pre-K will be better prepared for the rigors of school to come. In the long-term, pre-K will prepare an engaged, educated, and employed citizenry. I believe the case to save pre-K in Memphis has been made, even the president agrees.
If you’d like to save the pre-k classroom in not only your neighborhood, but all of those across our city, contact the people below.
Dr. DeAnna McClendon
Early Childhood Program Manager
Dorsey Hopson, II, Esq.
Superintendent of Shelby County Schools
Kevin S. Huffman
Tennessee Education Commissioner
Mr. Huffman is currently the chair of a task force examining the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP), which provides funding for the districts and hasn’t been fully funded itself since its inception six years ago.
By Ezra Howard