Knoxville, Tenn. — Three students at Fair Garden Elementary and Family Early Learning Center, an urban preschool center in Knoxville, Tennessee, should really be napping this afternoon. In fact, that’s what the rest of their class is doing. But DeWayne Thompson, Danivea Hill and Jermysiah Stripling have more energy than usual today, and as a result, they’re still awake and playing with a yellow compound called “Bubber,” a mixture that molds like Play-doh but feels like foam.
“I’m making a hamburger! I’m making a gingerbread man! I’m making a birthday cake!” they yell out.
Teacher Michael Brickell’s working alongside his students as they smash and mold the material into shapes.
“I made a bus!” says Jermysiah.
“It’s just, when you hear that, she’s making so many connections,” Brickell says. “It’s a bus, it’s a taxi – and it’s open and you know the connection she’s making, it’s yellow,” he says.
Brickell says open play is an important part of pre-K programs.
“That kind of stuff is growing the brain,” Brickell says.
And he says he also thinks more people are beginning to see the value these kinds of early education programs have for kids.
“Pre-K’s where it’s at right now; it’s growing, it’s getting bigger,” he says.
Tennessee has 935 state-funded voluntary pre-K classrooms. That’s more than double the number of classrooms eight years ago, when the program started. Enrollment in Tennessee’s pre-K programs is only available to low-income students. Linda Hodges is curriculum supervisor and preschool director for Grainger County Schools, a system in a small rural county about 30 miles from downtown Knoxville.
“It’s an intervention program to get at-risk children who qualify for free and reduced lunch ready for kindergarten, so that everybody’s on a level playing field – we hope,” says Hodges.
But while early three out of every four students in Grainger County qualify as low-income students, there are only about 80 slots in the four classrooms that make up the county’s pre-K program.
“So we’ve got an added sort of problem – that we’re glad to have – is that we’re creating a gap between those that had pre-K and those that did not have pre-K,” she says.
Hodges says while she’s grateful that pre-K makes a difference for the children who receive it, it also demonstrates a challenge rural school systems face:
“We don’t have the resources here for additional funding unless it came from the state,” she says. “So every year they tell us you have this much money for this many classrooms. And that’s what we budget for.”
Grainger County Schools also works in tandem with Head Start, which also provides pre-K services in the county. Because the two work so closely together and because both have high-quality pre-K programs, Hodges says the difference between the two comes down to transportation:
“The biggest difference that I can see is that they run bus service and we don’t. And the children that are limited to our program qualify for Head Start program – and transportation is the issue,” she says.
Paying the Bills
Kent McGuire with the Southern Education Foundation says thanks to the recession, most Southern states have slowed their investments in pre-K.
“What we’ve seen instead are folks doing well to hold the line on current service levels,” he says.
While a 2010 Southern Education Foundation report shows the South was actually expanding many pre-K programs – and serving more three-and-four-year-olds than any other region in the United States – the programs stalled in the recession. Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute, says that put pre-K funding in a precarious place.
“When budgets are tight, as they have been at the state level, and states have to cut, it’s easiest to cut where the programs are newest, where the support is thinner, where the pushback will be weaker, and that’s certainly Pre-K,” he says.
Whitehurst says the South has also invested more resources in pre-K than other parts of the country.
“Therefore there’s more on the table to be eligible for cuts,” he says.
The latest funding data from The National Institute for Early Education Research shows Tennessee actually added $86 dollars per child between 2010 and 2011; Georgia added $7. But Florida lost $142 per child in the last legislative budget round; Louisiana lost $131. Neither topped Arkansas’ loss of $501 dollars per child, or Oklahoma’s whopping 11-hundred dollar cut. And Kent McGuire says variance and fluctuations in pre-K funding is common across the South:
“I think we need to give additional attention to the funding scheme and finance systems that support these programs so that over time we do a better and better job accounting for the inequalities that are strictly a function of where someone happens to live.”
Expanding the Program
Still, Knox County teacher Michael Brickell says he has hope for pre-K. After all, he says, Kindergarten was once voluntary.
“I don’t think 20 years from now, it’s going to be required, but I believe it’s going to be everybody can come if they’d like to,” he says.
Linda Hodges also says she would like to see universal voluntary pre-K in Tennessee.
“Funding in the original proposal was that we would give at-risk children those experiences to have them ready for kindergarten. Well, we’re doing such a good job that we’re creating a gap,” she repeats.
“So that’s why I would like to see four-year-old pre-K for all; make it available to all parents that would choose it. I don’t think that it needs to be mandatory, because parents still need to have a say in when their children go to school and when they don’t, but I would like to see it available to parents regardless of income,” Hodges says.
The current political climate seems to indicate a move towards universal pre-K. But the biggest question still lingers: Just who will pay the bills?
VIDEO: Teacher Michael Brickell and pre-K students DeWayne Thompson, Danivea Hill, and Jermysiah Stripling.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Fair Garden Early Elementary and Family Learning Center as Fairgarden Community Center; the program is a federally-funded Title I preschool and not a state-funded pre-K as previously identified.