Report Finds State Preschool Funds Fall Short of Rhetoric

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An analysis of governors’ budget proposals for the upcoming fiscal year shows that even though many of them talk about a need to improve early-childhood programs, most have not recommended higher spending for school-readiness services.

Released last week by the Trust for Early Education, a Washington-based advocacy group, the report shows that of the 46 governors who gave State of the State Addresses this year, 16 mentioned preschool or other early-education programs as a priority.

Among the plans announced during the governors’ speeches were: providing grants to establish kindergarten for 4-year-olds in Wisconsin; adopting a rating system for child-care centers and preschools in Arizona; and mailing books each month to young children in Illinois.

But of the 41 states that now spend money on prekindergarten programs, preschool spending increases were proposed by governors in only 11 of them.

"The nation’s governors—on the whole—failed to ask for the resources necessary to address the nation’s school readiness problem in their FY ’05 budget proposals," according to the report.

Governors in 16 states recommended flat funding of early-childhood programs. The governors in four states—Colorado, Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia—recommended decreases in spending.

Because regular or special legislative sessions are in progress in many of the states where increases or decreases were recommended, it’s still unclear whether lawmakers will approve the proposals. The organization plans to release a follow-up report later this year on final actions.

‘Surprising’ Situation

Despite coming up short in the Trust for Early Education’s report, governors are proposing greater increases in spending on their early-childhood programs than President Bush is recommending for the federal Head Start preschool program, it adds.

In the fiscal 2005 budget proposed for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the president is calling for a 2.5 percent increase in the Head Start program, which aids poor children. If approved, annual spending for the program, which serves more than 900,000 children, would hit $6.94 billion.

In the states where governors pledged to expand preschool, increases, by comparison, range from 3 percent in California, to nearly 200 percent in Arkansas, where Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, proposed a $40 million increase in funding for the state’s Better Chance preschool program in his education reform package.

The legislature approved the increase in February, bringing funding for the Arkansas program to more than $53 million as part of its response to a court-mandate to improve education. ("As Arkansas Legislature Stalls, Court Takes Action," Feb. 4, 2004.)

"This situation is particularly surprising, given the president’s stated commitment to boosting student achievement and the clear and strong link between high-quality prekindergarten and later academic success," said Amy Wilkins, the executive director of the Trust for Early Education. The organization was established in 2002 with a grant from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts and other foundations.

But Steve Barbour, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, the agency that oversees the Head Start program, said, "There is a feeling that there are plenty of resources out there to get the job done."

He added that in addition to Head Start money, "there are billions of dollars on the table for early-childhood education," including the federal child-care block grant and the Early Reading First program in the Department of Education.

The authors of the report recommend that Congress "take steps to help the [Head Start] program become as aggressive about the intellectual development of low-income children as it has historically been about their health and social development."

Head Start was due for reauthorization last year. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that includes a plan proposed by President Bush to allow up to eight states to have more control over Head Start money. Some of the $169 million increase recommended by Mr. Bush would be used to implement that plan. The Senate bill, which has not been passed, focuses more on teacher credentials.

Vol. 23, Issue 32, Page 20

Published in Print: April 21, 2004, as Report Finds State Preschool Funds Fall Short of Rhetoric
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