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Published in Print: September 29, 2004, as Pre-K Rises as State Priority, Studies Show

Pre-K Rises as State Priority, Studies Show

Funding Up in 15 States, Though Others Trim Aid or Still Lack Programs

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Early education’s star is rising in some state legislatures and in Congress, two reports issued this month suggest.

Despite continuing economic uncertainty, 15 states increased their preschool funding by $205 million for fiscal 2005, a nationwide study by the Trust for Early Education found. The added spending will allow 60,000 more 3- and 4-year-olds to attend early-education programs this fall—a 17 percent increase from 2001.

The Washington-based early-education trust is a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and other foundations.

In addition, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office analyzes how four states have expanded access to prekindergarten through collaboration between schools and child-care providers, providing templates for other states looking to beef up their early-education programs.

“There’s no doubt that the time for prekindergarten is now,” said Libby Doggett, the executive director of the Trust for Early Education, which formed in 2002.

“We’ve really moved from saying, ‘Why prekindergarten?’ to ‘How can we do it?’ The early research is clear: Prekindergarten works,” she added in an interview. “It is the next area of school reform.”

The trust’s report, “Quality Pre-Kindergarten for All: State Legislative Report,” gives a snapshot of what each legislature did in the 2004 session in prekindergarten funding, creation, and expansion.

Preschool Progress

The increase in preschool funding in the 15 states, which include Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, and Virginia, is notable in light of state budget deficits nationwide, Ms. Doggett said. The fiscal 2004 shortfalls in the 50 states ranged from $70 billion to $85 billion, or between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of state expenditures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank.

In Arkansas, legislators increased preschool funding from $16 million last year to $56 million for fiscal 2005. As a result, 38 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds have access to preschool this school year, up from 18 percent a year ago. The legislature also committed up to $100 million over the next few years to early education, Ms. Doggett said.

In Illinois, 25,000 more 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families can attend preschool or get childcare this fall because legislators approved a $30 million increase in its early-childhood block grant, to $243 million in fiscal 2005. Younger children benefit through an 11 percent earmark for infants and toddlers. School districts and community child care providers are eligible for the funds. In addition, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, appointed an Early Learning Council focusing on prekindergarten.

And in Virginia, the Virginia Preschool Initiative, which serves low-income 4-year-olds, received a 151 percent funding increase to $47.4 million in fiscal 2005 with bipartisan legislative support. Lawmakers there also approved a policy change that increases from 60 percent to 90 percent the percentage of the state’s eligible preschoolers from low-income families.

Flat Funding

But the news isn’t all rosy.

Seventeen states flat-funded their prekindergarten programs, and seven states cut early education funding for fiscal 2005, according to the early-education trust’s report. Meanwhile, 10 states have no state-financed preschool programs at all.

While disappointing, the mixed picture is not surprising, said Sue Urahn, the director of education programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is based in Philadelphia.

“Progress in fits and starts—that’s absolutely typical when states move on an issue, especially in the last three years, when state funding has been at its worst since World War II,” she said.

New York, for example, has not raised early-education funding in four years, though its legislature recently approved a $740 million hike in overall education spending.

“Four years of flat funding are eroding the quality of the program and causing early educators to question the state’s commitment to young children,” the report says.

Early-childhood advocates in New York want to add preschool aid to the state’s funding formula and guarantee preschool slots for every eligible 4-year-old in the state. The Albany, N.Y.-based Center for Early Care and Education submitted the plan in a legal brief to a panel of judges that will recommend changes to the state’s school finance program. ("As Lawmakers Stall, N.Y. School Aid Case Gets 'Special Masters'," Aug. 11, 2004.)

States that cut funding include Kentucky, Maryland, and Minnesota. The states that have no state-financed prekindergarten programs are: Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

“We are making significant progress in this country,” Ms. Urahn said. “But we can’t let up because we have a long way to go.”

The gao prekindergarten report, which was prepared by the investigative agency of Congress and was publicly released earlier this month, looks closely at expanded preschool programs in Georgia, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and New York. The states’ programs were designed to serve all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income.

GAO Report

The report’s authors analyze the programs’ designs and funding, their potential impact on federal programs such as Head Start and private child-care providers, and any outcome data on participating children and families.

Gao researchers found that collaboration between school districts and community-based organizations smoothed the coordination between child care and preschool. Those efforts made it easier for parents—especially low-income parents—to enroll their children in prekindergarten programs.

Again, by working with districts, private child-care providers were able to avoid raising their prices or being pushed out of the marketplace as state-financed preschool programs expanded.

Vol. 24, Issue 05, Pages 16,18

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