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Published in Print: January 5, 2005, as Tennessee Governor Seeks Pre-K

Tennessee Governor Seeks Pre-K

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Tennessee’s governor wants to set up a statewide public preschool program this year as part of a long-term strategy to boost the state’s economy.

Gov. Phil Bredesen

But with revenue already tight, Gov. Phil Bredesen’s proposal is likely to spark a tug of war between education and health-care programs in the upcoming legislative session.

The pre-K plan, estimated to cost $200 million in the first year, would build a voluntary preschool system for Tennessee’s 4-year-olds, which has been a longtime goal for many state leaders but has never been realized because of budget constraints and a wobbly economy.

The proposal, which will be part of Gov. Bredesen’s fiscal 2006 budget plan, comes after the Democratic governor threatened to dismantle the state’s $7.8 billion TennCare program that provides health insurance for 1.3 million impoverished residents. In November, he proposed replacing the controversial and litigation-prone TennCare with a traditional Medicaid program that would insure fewer residents, and using the savings for pre-K education.

Now, Gov. Bredesen hopes instead to restructure the TennCare program to make it more cost-efficient, in turn freeing up funds to help pay for his pre-K plan.

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“One [program] hasn’t been traded out for another—we need to do all these things,” Lydia Lenker, Gov. Bredesen’s press secretary, said. “The only linkage is the money.”

Mr. Bredesen announced the new proposal Dec. 8 at an elementary school that is using a pilot pre-K program, funded with state and federal dollars, for children deemed at risk of failure in school. He called his proposal a “well-rounded, common-sense plan.”

“At its foundation is a conviction I’ve had since day one—that the most important thing we can do as a state is educate our children,” he said at the announcement.

Seeking Balance

Not surprisingly, the plan was applauded by state education groups. Early last month, the Coalition for Tennessee’s Future, a network of school administrators’ groups and teachers’ unions, called on the governor to find money for pre-K programs, and education overall.

Existing pre-K programs are working well, but they reach only about 20 percent of eligible children, said Jesse B. Register, the superintendent of the 40,000-student Hamilton County school district, which includes Chattanooga.

The coalition is supporting Gov. Bredesen’s plans to reform Tenn-Care. If the TennCare program continues in its present form, state officials estimate it will cost an additional $650 million next year.

Several studies show that Tennessee spends more per capita than any other state on its health-care programs, while it ranks between 44th and 49th in per-capita education spending, Mr. Register said. “There’s an obvious problem there,” he said.

The legislature, at the urging of former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, passed a plan for a pre-K program for 3-year-olds and all 4-year-olds from low-income families in 2001. But the state was unable to fund it.

Vol. 24, Issue 16, Page 20

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