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Published in Print: July 8, 2015, as In States, Plenty of Talk But Incremental Action on Early Ed.

Plenty of State Talk, Some Action on Early Education

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If all the legislative proposals to expand early-childhood-care and early-education programs in the states this winter and spring had passed, the nation would be entering a new era of near-universal, subsidized preschool for young children.

But the difference between what was proposed and what actually passed is vast.

A search in the National Conference of State Legislatures database for early-education legislation turned up 924 bills in 50 states as of June 29. Proposals ranged from increased state funding for home-visiting programs to universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

Most of the bills that had passed their respective legislatures as of late last month and earned their governors' signatures, however, moved only incrementally toward increasing the size and scope of publicly financed early-care and early-education programs.

That slow movement is in keeping with a trend in early-childhood education, observed W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Mixed Scorecard

Early-childhood education and related issues were on the radar in 49 state legislatures this winter and spring. The action and types of legislation varied widely. Here are a few examples:

Voucher-Based State Preschool
North Dakota created a new program for about 3,000 low-income 4-year-olds, and Minnesota expanded its existing program. Proposals to expand Alaska’s program and start one in Idaho failed.

Home Visiting
Connecticut created a home-visiting consortium, Massachusetts dedicated $14.7 million to its existing home-visiting program, and Oklahoma voted to require home visiting for vulnerable families.

Quality-Rating Systems
Iowa considered a bill that would have tied state preschool reimbursement rates to scores on a quality-rating system. It didn’t pass. Texas added quality standards to its state preschool program.

Funding Increases
Alabama, California, and Washington all approved funding increases for early-childhood education in their budgets without creating any new programming for children. (Washington will provide more training for early-childhood educators.)

"The difference between what gets announced and what ends up actually happening is often pretty big," Mr. Barnett said when his organization's "2014 State of Preschool Yearbook" came out in May. "Everything moved in a positive direction, but if you step back and say, 'What's the pace of growth?,' it's so slow."

Inching Forward

According to the yearbook, at the 2013-2014 growth rate, it would take about 75 years for states to reach 50 percent enrollment at age 4 and 150 years to reach 70 percent enrollment.

And though growth has been made—especially in Indiana, Mississippi, and New York City—since the time period covered by that report, the trend of loud talk followed by incremental action seems to have continued into 2015.

The only state to approve a brand-new program this legislative season was North Dakota. Proposals in two other states without public preschool programs—Idaho and Montana—failed. Opposition to the proposals in those states centered on the cost of starting new programs and the question of whether the government should interfere in the lives of young children.

Yet while most large expansion proposals were quashed, several states added significant funds to their early-education budgets.

A bill in Alabama that called for a universal state preschool program failed to pass before the legislature adjourned June 4. But Alabama lawmakers did approve $10 million in additional spending on the state's well-regarded First Class program, which provides competitive grants to underwrite high-quality preschool classrooms for 4-year-olds.

Alabama also was awarded $17.5 million in a 2014 federal Preschool Development Grant, an amount that is set to renew annually through fiscal year 2017 as long as the state continues to meet its goals. With the new funding in place, Alabama now serves nearly 19 percent of its 4-year-olds in publicly funded preschool classrooms, according to Jeana Ross, the commissioner of Alabama's children's affairs department. In 2013-14, the program served only 9 percent of 4-year-olds.

Washington state legislators passed a $98 million bill June 30 to complement an existing law that calls for a steady expansion of the state's preschool program until the 2018-19 school year, when all income-eligible children will have a spot. The bill contains funding for early-childhood teacher training and improvements to the state's quality- rating system. Between the bill and the $60 million in the state budget, there will be more funding for early childhood than at any time in Washington state history.

California also chose to grow its state preschool program by adding money to its budget without creating any new programs. At press time, a bill proposing a large expansion of the state's preschool program to all low-income 4-year-olds was pending. But the governor on June 24 did sign a budget that includes $220 million in additional funding to expand the state's existing preschool program. Another additional $203 million will go to other early-care and -education programs, bringing California's total annual spending on early childhood to $2.8 billion.

"This budget shows [lawmakers'] steadfast commitment to early learning," said Molly Tafoya, a spokeswoman for the early-education advocacy group Early Edge California. "We're making strides, but we need to keep working to improve."

In other states, pre-K legislation was a focal point of debate.

Minnesota nearly suffered a government shutdown when Gov. Mark Dayton refused to sign the initial state budget because it did not include his requested $343 million to launch a universal state preschool program and expand other early-care services. After a special session, the legislature came back with $279 million for early education and no new preschool program. Gov. Dayton, who is a member of the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, agreed to the $95 million increase over last year's early-education budget and signed the compromise into law June 13.

In Texas, the ideological fight over expanding early education came between the state's top two Republicans: Gov. Greg Abbott, who made restoring the state's gutted preschool program a legislative priority, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose tea-party supporters made headlines with an open letter calling public preschool "godless."

In the end, lawmakers agreed to Gov. Abbott's proposed bill to restore $130 million of the $300 million that had been cut from the state's early- education programming in 2011. (A total of $30 million of that had been restored in 2013.)

North Dakota's Leap

Perhaps the most significant legislation to come out of the states, though, was a $3 million bill in North Dakota.

A coalition of early-childhood teachers, advocates, and parents, led by state Sen. Tim Flakoll, a Republican, succeeded in persuading North Dakota lawmakers to create a brand-new state preschool program that will launch in July 2016.

"There was concern that by providing revenue for preschool programs that it would erode the family foundation," said North Dakota schools Superintendent Kirsten Baesler. "But nearly 80 percent of 4-year-olds [here] already had both parents working outside of the home."

Once they understood that, Ms. Baesler said, lawmakers were more interested in improving the educational quality of the places where those 4-year-olds were spending time.

Related Blog

The North Dakota programs will cover scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 for 4-year-olds who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Programs that accept the funds must meet certain specified quality standards. Sen. Flakoll expects that about a third of the state's nearly 10,000 4-year-olds will be served by the new program.

"Tell me what you can ever invest in that would generate so much long-term success for a state," he said. "I mean this [$3 million] would basically pay for one mile of road. Which would you rather have, one mile of road or 30 to 35 percent of kids getting exposed to a year of education?"

Vol. 34, Issue 36, Page 16

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the bill pending in California as of press time would expand the state's preschool program to all low-income 4-year-olds.

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