States Take Action: Tennessee


In Tennessee, 2,249 children under the age of three are enrolled in Early Head Start programs, and 21 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in a state-funded early learning program.  The persistence of education reformers in Nashville and Memphis, paired with the vocal support of lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, is paying off. Tennessee holds its position among the top tier of states with high-quality pre-K programs. The state meets nine out of 10 quality benchmarks for early childhood education standards, and has introduced plans for further improvement. Additionally, the average annual cost of center-based infant care in the state is amongst the lowest in the country at $5,857.

  • What’s happening in the legislature:  Progress at the local level is remarkable, particularly in Nashville. In February 2014, the city became one step closer to offering pre-K to all 4-year-olds by 2018. With strong backing from schools chief Jesse Register, the school board voted unanimously to turn two elementary schools into pre-K hubs. Since then, Register has continued to champion the cause of universal pre-K and proposed an English immersion component that would assist a quarter of the city’s 4-year-olds, who come from homes where English is not spoken. 
  • What lawmakers are saying: In April 2014, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced plans to introduce a bill “that would provide states the flexibility to decide how best to use some or all of the more than $22 billion in federal money spent annually on 45 different early childhood education programs.” Alexander, the senior Republican on the senate education committee, noted the need to innovate: “What we shouldn’t do is fall back into the familiar Washington pattern of a grand promise, lots of federal mandates and sending the bill to governors to pay in the end…We have millions of children who need this kind of early education.”