Bredesen: State should expand pre-K despite worsening economy - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Bredesen: State should expand pre-K despite worsening economy

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Phil Bredesen on Tuesday vowed to press ahead with his plan to offer universal access to public pre-kindergarten classes despite indications that the economy is worsening.

Bredesen, a Democrat, said he recognizes that it will be harder to pour large amounts of money into pre-K, but that program has shown its worth since he began expanding it beyond a small pilot project in 2005.

State officials announced last week that tax collections had come in $100 million below projections in October.

"We all know we're going through the cycle again and the economy is certainly softening again this year," Bredesen said. "And it will present some challenges."

Bredesen acknowledged that some lawmakers have been hostile to the program and might take advantage of a leaner economy to try to halt its expansion.

"You always wonder whether your favorite project will get on the chopping block when it gets to the General Assembly," he said. "But I think the pre-K has established itself as such a good program and has such popular support out there.

"I think it'd be a very hard program for someone to cut back on or not fund some expansion," he said.

There were 148 pilot pre-K classrooms in Tennessee when Bredesen came into office in 2003. That number now stands at 934, said Education Commissioner Lana Seivers.

Seivers told Bredesen that the state has received applications for 303 new pre-K classrooms next year, which would expand the program to every county and every school district in the state.

Bredesen declined to say whether he will recommend the Legislature approve the about $30 million to bring the pre-K program to that level.

The pre-K program has been focused on students deemed "at risk" - jargon for children who qualify for free or reduced lunches. Once the state meets the demand for those students, Bredesen wants to open the program up to all children.

Nearly 88 percent of the 17,271 children enrolled in pre-K programs are considered "at risk," while another 11 percent have disabilities or are English language learners. There currently 2,110 children on enrollment waiting lists, Seivers said.

Education experts say about 60 percent of eligible children would be sent to public pre-K programs. That would require about 2,300 pre-K classrooms at an annual cost of about $196 million, Seivers said.

The state currently spends about $80 million a year on pre-K.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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