Published Online: February 26, 2013
Published in Print: February 27, 2013, as States Welcome Obama Pre-K Proposal—Cautiously

States Size Up Obama Pre-K Proposal

Well before President Barack Obama vaulted early-childhood learning to the top of the education agenda in his recent State of the Union address, states were taking steps to bolster their own preschool programs.

More than a dozen states—including some, such as Hawaii and Mississippi, that have had no state-financed preschool programs in the past—are currently eyeing proposals to launch or expand early education.

Leaders in those states say that they're interested in the president's still-evolving proposal to provide incentives for states to create or expand high-quality birth-to-5 programs, with a focus on low- and middle-income access. But some say they don't want any such federal money—the amount of which has yet to be specified, let alone appropriated—to come with cumbersome requirements.

"If the federal government wanted to make sure that Georgia would not participate, they would say, 'You have to do x, y, and z,' and offer no flexibility," said Bobby Cagle, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.

Georgia has a universal, voluntary state-funded pre-K program that enrolls about 60 percent of the state's 4-year-olds. Two days after delivering his address to Congress on Feb. 12, President Obama visited a private preschool in Decatur, Ga. to talk up his early-childhood proposals.

The state, which uses lottery money to pay for its preschool program, had to cut it from 180 to 160 days and increase class sizes in 2010-11, but there is a proposal from Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, to go back to 180 days for the 2013-14 school year.

"We are open to a robust conversation about what standards the government would like to have met if they do move in a direction like this," Mr. Cagle said. "We could provide them with good information about what they really should be looking at."

Sherri Killins, Massachusetts' commissioner of early education and care, said she was not worried about federal requirements accompanying the aid, should the proposal pass. Her state won a Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, and she would expect such requirements to follow that same template.

"I haven't met the dollar that didn't have strings attached," Ms. Killins said. "Massachusetts has been quite successful in positioning itself to take advantage of federal opportunities."

Tight-Lipped

All but 11 states finance some kind of preschool program, though the quality of those programs and the percentage of children enrolled in each state vary, according to the National Institute on Early Education Research, or NIEER, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

State-Level Attention

Proposals to expand early-childhood-education programs are bubbling in a number of states—including from governors on both sides of the political aisle. Among the more specific initiatives currently on the table:

Alabama: Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, has proposed a $12.5 million increase in funding in fiscal 2014 that would add 2,200 seats to the state’s voluntary pre-K program.

Georgia: Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, has proposed increasing state pre-K to 180 days, restoring it to its original status after lottery shortfalls forced reductions for two years.

Hawaii: Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, wants to spend $28.9 million on preschool for about 3,500 4-year-olds, starting in the 2014-15 school year, with plans to expand the program.

Indiana: Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, has said he supports a plan from the legislature to create a preschool pilot voucher program that would serve 1,000 children.

Massachusetts: Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, proposes changing the tax structure in the state to pay for a preschool expansion that would eliminate a 30,000-child waiting list by 2017.

Michigan: Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, wants to increase the number of at-risk 4-year-olds served by the state’s voluntary pre-K program by providing $130 million over the next two years.

Mississippi: Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, is seeking a $3 million increase in funds for the Mississippi Building Blocks preschool program, but the legislature has approved bills expanding on his proposal that could lead to the state’s first publicly funded pre-K program.

Missouri: Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, is proposing adding $17 million to the state’s fiscal 2014 budget for early-childhood education, which would be split between the state’s preschool program and Early Head Start.

Minnesota: Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, has proposed increasing enrollment in preschool by 10,000 students, at a cost of $44 million.

Vermont: Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, proposes to shift $17 million from the earned income tax credit to help fund high-quality child care in the state and to use state funds to help support preschool startup efforts.

About 1.3 million 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded prekindergarten during the 2010-11 school year, the latest statistics available from the organization. That number accounted for about 28 percent of the nation's 4-year-olds that year, and 4 percent of the 3-year-olds.

The Obama administration has been tight-lipped about major components of its new early-education plan, including how much money it would like to devote to the effort.

However, it has released some details of what it would like to create, including a cost-sharing arrangement with the states that would extend federal dollars to reach 4-year-olds in families with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, currently $23,550 a year for a family of four.

The federal money, to be overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, would flow to school districts and other providers of early-childhood education. The administration would also like to see the creation of state-level standards for early learning, qualified teachers, and assessment systems for early-learning providers. And it would also expand Early Head Start, a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that currently supports infants and toddlers.

W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER, said the White House proposal was particularly appealing because it would support what states already are trying to do.

"The federal government is not going to foot the whole bill. But it will make it vastly easier for them to accomplish what they already say they want to accomplish," Mr. Barnett said.

He pointed to the Education Department's Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants, which provided more than $600 million to states to improve their preschool programs. Thirty-five states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico applied for those grants, showing that there's already a strong desire nationwide to improve early learning, Mr. Barnett said.

'Beautiful Opportunity'

"The states that have been creating programs have been going for quality first," he said. "But the struggle they have is, if you go for quality first, it's more expensive, you can take fewer kids, and it takes a longer time" to expand.

"For the states that have high standards and are willing to go for excellence, the president's plan is a beautiful opportunity," Mr. Barnett said.

Mr. Cagle, the early-education leader for Georgia, noted that funding cuts in its program have led the state to drop some of the wraparound services that used to be a part of the program. He said that federal funding, if it were to come, would likely be used to revive those efforts to steer families to needed services.

"That's one of the things we know is needed in the state—a good family-support component," he said.

State Rep. Robert Behning, a Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives and the chairman of its education committee, said he sees the urgency behind early-childhood programs.

A bill before the legislature would create a two-year pilot preschool voucher program to educate 1,000 children, ages 3 and 4, from low-income families. If the $7 million proposal passes, it will be the first state-funded preschool program in Indiana.

"The reality is that children in poverty face challenges well beyond being impoverished," Mr. Behning said. "If we don't change the trajectory this country is on in terms of K-12 delivery, we're going to have a very class-based society of haves and have-nots. Very few people will be able to cross from the lower class to the class above them."

At the same time, he's wary of federal involvement in early childhood, even when it comes with the promise of more money.

"Unfortunately, some of the federal dollars come with so many strings attached to them it's hard to figure out if it's a benefit or a curse," he said. Of particular concern is that the government may inject money into programs early on, then leave the states to foot the entire bill at a later date.

"I'm personally not an advocate of the feds getting involved in a greater way other than to incentivize states to do the right thing," Mr. Behning said.

Related Blog

State Rep. Toby Barker, a Mississippi Republican and the sponsor of an early-childhood billRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader that would create his state's first preschool program funded with state dollars, said that after years of lip service, signs are strong an early-learning measure will pass. Federal money would be welcome if it came with autonomy, he said.

"I think there's a conscious effort to make some fundamental, structural changes in how we do education in the state," Mr. Barker said. But, he added, "I'm cautious any time the federal government says they're going to create some kind of new spending program. What would be helpful to the states would be more autonomy over those dollars that do come from the federal government. Each state knows its own landscape best."

Theresa Lock, the coordinator of Hawaii's newly created Executive Office on Early Learning, is enthusiastic about the potential expansion of a federal role. Lawmakers in her state are considering several bills that would create a state-funded preschool program.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, is pushing for the program to start in the 2014-15 school year, with an enrollment of 3,500 children. The program would be free for families with incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, mirroring the federal proposal. A sliding-fee scale would be used for better-off families.

"The majority of our lawmakers would like to support young children, but because of other competing priorities, it's definitely an uphill battle," Ms. Lock said. When the economy was not doing well, there were a lot of cuts to critical programs that are now seeking more money, she said.

"The governor's position is that we need to invest now. We cannot keep pushing off children's needs and their development," she added.

Ms. Lock said she liked the federal attention to quality, because her state is at the very beginning of developing its early-learning infrastructure. "We hope that states like Hawaii aren't left out of the loop" for funding, she said.

Building Block

Ms. Killins, the early-education chief for Massachusetts, said her state would like to use additional federal aid to knit together programs already operating around the state's early-childhood system so that families can access a seamless continuum of care.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, has made a major increase in preschool and early learning a key part of his budget proposal for fiscal 2014.

"One of the things I was most proud of in my governor's presentation and in the president's presentation: It isn't just about preschool," Ms. Killins said. "They care just as much about home visiting and infants and toddlers.

"Those things give me a lot of hope," she said, "that we are really looking at families and looking at children, and we're looking for shared benefits."

Vol. 32, Issue 22, Pages 1,21

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