State, Republics at odds over ramifications of pre-K funding moves

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 12:55am

Tennessee’s commissioner of education has asked lawmakers to reject what he considers Republican efforts in the state Senate to diminish funding for pre-kindergarten.

Speaking with a group of pre-kindergarten advocates, teachers and parents, Commissioner Tim Webb said at a press conference Tuesday that recent Senate Republican actions could lead to serious cuts to pre-K funding in coming years.

The backlash stems from a budget amendment that passed Friday in the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee. The amendment would cut $22 million in recurring funds from pre-K programs, and move the money to a non-recurring classification.

According to a statement from the state Department of Education, this “party-line vote” signals the “GOP-led Senate’s intent to do away with the money in the next budget cycle.”

Republicans, for their part, object to the characterization.

At the press conference Tuesday conducted by Webb, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said the issue has been “grossly misrepresented.” There’s a history in Tennessee of funding pre-K programs with non-recurring dollars, Ramsey said, and the recent amendment does nothing to jeopardize programs already in place.

“Some of us take this personally, when you say we have the intent of dismantling the pre-K program. I can read from the email right here,” Ramsey said. “I can firmly tell you there is no intent …to dismantle the pre-K program in the state of Tennessee. I can assure you that’s the case.”

Webb said Tuesday that considering the funds “non-recurring” could make it easier in the next few years to cut program funds.

“There’s no way to know what next year’s budget cycle will hold,” Webb said. “We do believe that things will continue to be problematic for us, and so we don’t want to set the stage for making pre-K a place that those non-recurring monies can be found.”

Francie Hunt of Nashville’s Stand for Children said Ramsey’s words were “encouraging.” Stand for Children is an advocate for pre-K, and played a part in organizing the advocates, parents and teachers who spoke with Webb Tuesday.

“I think it was a critical statement that had to be made at this red-hot minute,” Hunt said, of the importance of Webb and advocates speaking up. “I was encouraged to hear from our Republican leadership that they have every intent to protect this program in the future.”

Tennessee’s $80 million pre-K program currently serves 17,000 4-year-olds statewide. Metro Nashville Public Schools has pre-K programs at 32 public schools funded with state and Title I dollars.