States Press Ahead on Preschool Programs

But policymakers struggle over funding of initiatives, which children will qualify.

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As many state legislative sessions come to an end, several governors are celebrating the success of their preschool funding proposals, a sign that the expansion of early-childhood education continues to be a major priority for state leaders.

But the practical challenges are on display in Arizona and in the city of Denver, where a variety of issues—including which children will qualify for services and how the revenue will be distributed—remain unsettled as officials work to get new, voter-adopted early-childhood initiatives off the ground.

In Arizona last November, voters approved an 80-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes to pay for the state’s new Early Childhood Development and Health InitiativeRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is expected to raise about $150 million a year for services such as child-development information for parents and grants to preschool providers to improve quality.

But even though more than $40 million has already been collected, it could be more than a year before the money is actually directed to any programs, said Elliott Hibbs, the interim executive director for the board that Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, has appointed to oversee the program.

The board members, who are still awaiting confirmation by the Arizona Senate, are “trying to resist the urge to spend money in order to have the appearance of spending money,” Mr. Hibbs said, and waiting for results of a statewide needs assessment.

‘A Lot of Question Marks’

Board members also are deliberating over how to draw regional lines and appoint people to local councils to determine which child-development and health programs for young children should receive state funds.

Preschool providers, nevertheless, are anxious about those funds’ becoming available.

Early-Education Initiatives

A number of states and localities are pushing to get expanded preschool programs off the ground.

• Officials in Arizona and Denver are working to implement new voter-approved early-childhood initiatives, but services for families could be a year away.

• Iowa has passed a four-year, $60 million early-childhood plan that officials say will “dramatically expand early-childhood education around the state.”

• A long-running pre-K program in New York state is back on track with new money tied to the state’s school finance formula.

• In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made good on a promise to add more money in his budget for the state preschool program.

• The amount for pre-K in Illinois for 2008 remains unclear because of a debate over a state revenue package.

“We’re all just trying to sit on our hands,” said Joanne Floth, the president of the Arizona Association for the Education of Young Children. “There are a lot of question marks floating around.”

In Denver, a new board of directors and a board of advisers are beginning to make decisions about how to implement the “tuition assistance” program, which was just barely approved by local voters.

Mayor John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who was successful in getting a 0.12 percent sales-tax increase approved by voters in November, is urging organizers to have the program available to parents this coming fall, but those in charge of putting it in place say that probably won’t happen.

Instead of creating a new center-based program, the idea behind the Denver initiative, which will bring in about $11.2 million a year, is to supplement the cost of high-quality preschool programs for low-income parents, said Susan Gallo, the deputy director of the Mayor’s Office for Education and Children.

“It’s important to have quality, but parent choice is critical, too,” Ms. Gallo said.

She said the money should be available for a variety of preschool providers, not just school-based programs. Several states have also taken that approach as a way to connect the mix of public and private programs and to improve the level of care and education.

“For us, it’s really an opportunity to raise the tide for all boats,” Ms. Gallo said.

School Funding Formulas

Some federal policymakers also are interested in doing more on the issue.

At her recent National Summit on America’s Children, in Washington, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hinted that she would like to see children’s issues become a higher priority for the 110th Congress.

“We also have to have a strong public role,” Ms. Pelosi said at the May 22 event. “It’s about children, but it’s also about America.”

More state legislatures, meanwhile, are moving to integrate preschool and K-12 funding.

In New York, the state’s universal pre-K program has received a $146 million boost, bringing total funding to $437 million in fiscal 2008. The increase spreads the program, originally targeted to low-income children, to all but nine of the state’s 680 school districts, and integrates the funding into the state education formula. Previously, just 188 districts were eligible for the aid.

Beyond the budget increase, advocates for early-childhood education say they sense a shift in attitudes toward the program, which passed in 1997 under then-Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, but which has received almost no increases in funding since 2000.

“Now the state education department and educators are talking about a P-through-16 education system,” said Nancy Kolben, the executive director of Child Care Inc., a resource and referral agency based in New York City.

The funding, however, is still not enough to offer full-day programs, Ms. Kolben said. Another challenge is that the amount districts receive per child varies across the state because of a funding formula linked to the property-tax base.

Full-day pre-K, however, is one of the options that will be available to the 56 New York school districts that are part of Democratic Gov. Elliot Spitzer’s new “contracts for excellence” initiative, his response to a state high court ruling in a school funding lawsuit.

Preschool advocates in Iowa are also celebrating Gov. Chet Culver’s signing of a $60 million plan to make pre-K programs available to almost every 4-year-old in the state. The state will spend $15 million a year for the next four years on a program called Voluntary Preschool Access, which could increase the percentage of children attending pre-K classrooms to 90 percent, from the current level of 10 percent.

The funding will also be part of the state education aid formula, which experts say gives Iowa’s pre-K programs a stronger chance of seeing budget increases each year. Initially, the funds will be targeted to low-income communities and school districts that aren’t already offering some type of preschool class.

Over the state line in Illinois, however, no agreement had been reached as of last week on a tax-restructuring plan from Gov. Rod Blagojevich that would help raise another $69 million in fiscal 2008 to continue expanding preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Among governors who support early-childhood programs, Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat, has stood out in recent years because of his year-after-year funding proposals, which the legislature has approved.

Beginning in fiscal 2004, $30 million was included in the budget for three consecutive years. And this year’s state budget includes $45 million for the program. The governor’s fiscal 2008 proposal also includes an extra $30 million capital-improvement plan to build pre-K facilities.

“The debate is over how much revenue we need,” said Julie Parente, spokeswoman for Voices for Illinois Children, a Chicago-based advocacy group.

In California, after being disappointed by the absence of additional preschool funding in January when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced his fiscal 2008 budget, preschool supporters are now pleased to see an additional $50 million proposed for the state’s preschool program, which is targeted to low-income families.

“We look forward to working with both the governor and legislative leaders ... to expand prekindergarten opportunities for California’s children,” Catherine Atkin, the president of Preschool California, an advocacy group, said in a press release.

Vol. 26, Issue 39, Pages 15, 17

Published in Print: June 6, 2007, as States Press Ahead on Preschool Programs
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