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State Funding For Preschool Rises Steadily

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After a big growth spurt in the mid-1980's, state funding of preschool programs has continued on a slow but steady rise, with several states making major new investments even in times of fiscal austerity, a new study shows.

While growing numbers of states are pulling together networks of providers beyond public schools, many are not serving families comprehensively or meeting the needs of working parents, according to the survey by the Children's Defense Fund.

The survey--the first large-scale study of its kind since the late 1980's--looked at programs that provided at least some education-related services to prekindergarten-age children--mainly 4-year-olds--in the 1991-92 school year.

Researchers at Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women and the Bank Street College of Education conducted the first extensive study of state-financed preschool programs. They surveyed states in 1986 and 1987 and later updated their study through fiscal 1988.

Their work, which also analyzed hundreds of local programs, charted dramatic gains in the number of states paying for preschool programs during the 1980's wave of school reform. But it also cited limitations in the scope of the programs. (See Education Week, 10/14/87.)

'Uneven Portrait'

The c.d.f. study does not include some categories covered in the earlier study, such as initiatives focused mainly on educating parents or providing services to children with disabilities. It also does not cover preschool programs financed under the federal Chapter 1 program or efforts in a few states to extend kindergarten to 4-year-olds.

Even after excluding those categories, however, the new survey shows that 32 states financed prekindergarten programs in the 1991-92 school year, nearly triple the number that did so in 1979. Those states together spent about $665 million and served nearly 290,000 children, the report says.

The report links states' continued interest in preschool to a heightened awareness of the importance of the early-childhood years and broad support for the first national education goal, which aims to insure that all children enter school ready to learn.

But "beyond these encouraging signs of national progress," it cautions, "is an uneven portrait of individual state efforts that range from bold innovations and major new investments to continued inaction or reliance on narrow and more traditional programs."

"If you look at the quality of core early-childhood experiences, many are doing a fairly decent job," said Gina Adams, a senior program associate at the c.d.f., a Washington-based advocacy group, and the principal author of the report. "But in terms of the broader scope of comprehensive services and parent support, the picture becomes much more mixed."

Funding levels across states ranged from $145,000 in New Mexico to $144 million in Texas. Two-thirds of states' spending on preschool was concentrated in California, Florida, Illinois, New York State, and Texas, each of which spent more than $50 million.

One of the significant newcomers the report cites is Kentucky, which spent $31 million in 1991 on a preschool program it launched as part of its statewide overhaul of education. It also notes that Georgia expects to spend $140 million in fiscal 1996 on a program it launched in 1993 using lottery revenues.

The states cited in the study as spending the most on a per-child basis are Kentucky, Texas, Alaska, Florida, and South Carolina. But no state served all eligible children, and the majority did not even come close. Many states reported that their programs served fewer than 30 percent of eligible children.

Some states, the report says, paid only for small pilot projects, and 19 did not spend anything on the kinds of programs studied.

One promising sign, Ms. Adams said, is that some states are moving beyond the traditional public school setting toward a "broader concept of early-childhood education" that includes Head Start and child-care providers as partners.

Stressing Coordination

Increasing numbers of states, the study found, are trying to encourage coordination and minimize duplication of programs.

Nearly half of the states with preschool initiatives used at least some of their funds to expand Head Start or other federal programs. And 14 of the 24 states with their own programs allowed child-care and Head Start centers as well as schools to participate.

However, while most programs targeted children at risk of school failure, the report says, nearly half of the state efforts did not clearly and consistently link families to health and social services.

"That is a major limitation," said Ms. Adams, who stressed that children cannot learn if their basic needs are not met.

The strongest comprehensive-service mandates were found in Oregon, Washington State, and a small New Jersey program targeted to urban children.

A big concern, especially in view of calls to limit welfare, is that many programs operate only part of the day or year, Ms. Adams said.

While some--including initiatives in Colorado and Iowa and New Jersey's urban program--have worked with other providers to fill that gap, the study found that one-third of the states did "little or nothing" to adjust programs for working parents. Fewer than half helped parents overcome transportation problems.

Teacher Requirements Vary

Eight states require staff to be able to communicate with children whose primary language is not English, the study found, but half made no such provisions.

In gauging program quality, the study found that most states limit the number of children per teacher and classroom, but half "failed to insure that teachers had specialized training" in early-childhood education. Among those that did require specialization, the requirements varied widely.

A growing number of state programs--about two-thirds of those studied--are using home visits to help educate parents about child development. But smaller numbers require significant levels of parental involvement or decisionmaking, notes the report, which says Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New York State, Oregon, Washington State, and New Jersey's urban program had the strongest requirements.

There was also wide variation in how much monitoring and technical support states offered.

Fern Marx, a co-author of the earlier Bank Street-Wellesley study, noted that while the increase in overall state investments is encouraging, the growth in absolute numbers of new prekindergarten programs since the mid-1980's has been much slower.

The mixed findings on quality and comprehensiveness also show, she said, that "the dream that every child would have access to and experience with a good preschool program remains a dream."

Copies of the report, "First Steps, Promising Futures: State Prekindergarten Initiatives in the Early 1990's," are available for $7.95 each, plus $2 for postage, from the Children's Defense Fund Publications Division, 25 E St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

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