Our policy priorities include:
Strengthening literacy supports in the early grades
Developing language and literacy skills begins at birth through everyday interactions with parents and caregivers, such as sharing books, telling stories, singing songs and talking to one another. Unfortunately, by the time many children reach kindergarten, they have already fallen behind and require additional support to catch up to grade level by third grade. To this end, in 2021 Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly made significant, though temporary, investments in boosting early grades literacy rates - such as a new phonics-based reading program, high-dosage tutoring and afterschool and summer programs. Additionally, in 2022 they enacted the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act which significantly increased investments to support early literacy in grades K–3. We must protect and expand on these investments and continue to promote policies that ensure more Tennessee children are reading on grade level by the critical third-grade benchmark.
Nurturing physical and mental health from birth
Strong, healthy parents and families mean strong, healthy kids. Decades of research show that early childhood health is a critically important factor when it comes to building strong brains and a solid early learning foundation. Beginning from birth, children's progress along crucial developmental milestones depends on nurturing, safe, stable relationships with caregivers and the whole family's access to health and mental health support. We support policies that expand families' access to health and mental health supports and that strengthen early relational health.
Increasing access to high-quality, affordable child care
The state of Tennessee is facing a child care emergency. A 2022 child care survey conducted by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education found that 80 percent of working Tennessee parents of children under 6 reported child care challenges that adversely impacted their work productivity or limited career opportunities – with affordability, access and difficulty finding quality care being the biggest problems. Additionally, the pandemic coupled with historically low pay for child care educators has significantly compounded the problem. Child care providers are struggling to recruit and retain qualified staff while trying to keep costs affordable for parents. They are especially challenged in serving infants and toddlers where costs are highest due to lower staff-to-child ratios. We support policies and investments that ensure working families across the state can access affordable, quality child care. Investments in child care are investments in the workforce of today and the workforce of tomorrow.
Making high-quality Pre-K an option for more Tennessee families
Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) expansion is long overdue in Tennessee. It's a proven tool for academic success that hasn't been meaningfully expanded in the number of classrooms funded or the amount of funding per classroom in nearly 15 years. Meanwhile, demand for the VPK program is high. Currently only 22 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in VPK, while seventy-five percent of school districts cite waitlists totaling thousands of students. Pre-K also makes good business sense. In fact, increased academic and career achievement as well as reduced costs in remedial education, health and criminal justice system expenditures led Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman to document returns as high as $7 – $10 for every $1 invested in high-quality Pre-K for economically disadvantaged children. Heckman's research makes clear what we already know – it's much more cost-effective to invest early than to remediate later. Tennessee must increase state funding for Pre-K so school districts and their private sector preschool partners can cover the costs of quality classrooms, and so more parents have the option for their children to attend.
Empowering parents and families
Parents are children's first and most influential teachers. As such, it's important parents and families have access to the resources they need to help their children thrive. Unfortunately, too many Tennesseans are struggling with the stress that comes from trying to make ends meet and navigate parenting. One proven strategy to support parents is voluntary Evidence-Based Home Visiting, where parents who choose to participate are provided with a social worker or nurse to help them learn parenting skills, support their children's early health, and access needed resources for their families. Studies show these voluntary programs empower parents, helping to strengthen parenting skills, reduce abuse and neglect, and get children ready for school. In addition, these programs are cost-effective and could generate a return of up to $5.70 for every $1 invested. We support investments in Evidence-Based Home Visiting programs and other resources that strengthen families and support parenting success.