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As American consumers, we are accustomed to expecting quality from the things we purchase, whether clothing, food, vehicles or other products and services. Why would we expect any less for our state’s children when it comes to the pre-kindergarten program they attend?
That is the exact question Sen. Steve Dickerson and I asked ourselves in 2016, when we agreed to co-sponsor the Tennessee Pre-K Quality Act. Because of that landmark legislation, the Tennessee Department of Education awarded grants to 917 pre-K programs benefitting more than 18,000 children, based largely on the quality of those programs.
In 2015, Vanderbilt University released the results of a study of Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten programs. The study received national recognition for its specificity, longevity and findings. One of the most important findings was that Tennessee’s pre-K programs lacked consistency from classroom to classroom. The way time was spent in the classroom, the quality of instruction and environments, and student outcomes in language and math varied widely between classrooms across the state.
With the variability in quality, how could parents know if their child was receiving a quality education that would prepare him or her to thrive in kindergarten and beyond? In the Pre-K Quality Act, we charged the Tennessee Department of Education to require programs to meet the criteria for a “highly qualified pre-kindergarten program” as defined by the department.
Local education agencies (LEAs) that receive Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K (TN-VPK) funding are now required to utilize the Pre-K/Kindergarten growth portfolio model approved by the State Board of Education for the evaluation of teachers.
Additionally, successful grant award recipients must ensure coordination between TN-VPK classrooms and elementary schools within an LEA so elementary grade instruction builds upon pre-K classroom experiences. They must engage parents and families of TN-VPK students through the school year, and require districts to provide professional development to teachers to improve and reduce the variability between classrooms.
For the first time, the roughly $86 million available for pre-K was awarded to local districts based on a competitive grant process. LEA’s were guided by a clear definition of program quality provided by the Department of Education. Districts received technical assistance to understand the new process and had to assess their programs based on quality standards. Through these steps, we have greater assurance that taxpayers are purchasing quality.
This more rigorous process resulted in some districts receiving approval for fewer pre-kindergarten seats, which correlates to fewer dollars for their programs. While this is a loss for some districts, overall, this is a positive development for the voluntary pre-K program. Children and parents deserve quality, as do taxpayers who fund these grants. Importantly, the unallocated funds will be used to help districts improve the quality of their pre-K classrooms.
Our colleagues in the Tennessee General Assembly saw the value of a new approach to delivering pre-K in Tennessee. The House passed the measure 95-0 and the Senate 26-3. I thank them for supporting common sense innovation for our state’s most vulnerable children. I am also grateful Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill and for the hard work of the Tennessee Department of Education.
The collective efforts of many in state government and the commitment of districts and teachers will lead to more Tennessee kids prepared for school and success in life.
Rep. Mark White is a Republican representing District 83 in Shelby County.
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