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Pre-K Gaining Traction in ‘Wilderness States’

Advocates see promising, though tentative, moves in areas slow to embrace state-funded programs.
By Linda Jacobson — April 10, 2008 6 min read
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They’ve been called the “wilderness states” when it comes to prekindergarten services. And in one prominent advocacy group’s yearbook of state pre-K activity, they earn a full page with the words “no program” in large, obvious print.

But among the 12 states that advocates say do not operate or fund preschool programs—including Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Mississippi—efforts are under way that could yield legislation providing for such services in the future.

Mississippi, the only Southern state still considered to lack a publicly funded early-childhood-education program, passed a measure last year that created an “early care and education grant program” to improve access to existing providers for children from low- income families.

In Hawaii, legislation is pending that would form a state “early learning council” to administer such a system, a move advocates say would be a start.

And in Idaho, where a proposed $100,000 study on the effectiveness of preschool failed to gain traction this year, business leaders think waiting another year or two might mean more legislative support for a high- quality program, said Stephanie Rubin, the state-program director for Pre-K Now, the Washington-based advocacy group that issues an annual report on such activity.

“We’re fully aware that it will take a couple years for there to be a good public understanding of what pre-K really is,” said Ms. Rubin, whose group is set to release a state-by-state status report on pre-K legislation next week. “No one is forcing school on little kids.”

Building Support

Steffanie Clothier, a child-care and preschool expert at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said that sometimes it take a few years for such attempts to be successful, either because some lawmakers don’t see a need for a program, or because there is a lack of training opportunities for pre-K teachers.

“For states that have had to start from scratch, those questions really do get in the way,” she said.

Ms. Rubin, whose group began using the label “wilderness states” to describe those without pre-K programs of their own, suggested that some of the proposals “bubbling up” in those states have come from lawmakers who don’t want their states known for not providing such an education program.

That status can be particularly irksome at a time when governors in states such as Alabama, Tennessee, and Virginia continue to attract attention for their efforts to expand pre-K attendance, even in the face of tight budgets.

“We’ve seen from talking to legislators,” Ms. Rubin said, “that many of them who support pre-K are bothered by being part of this isolated crowd.”

In Mississippi, for example, advocates are cautiously optimistic that lawmakers may for the first time include money in the budget for three programs approved in 2006 but never funded: an early childhood grant program, a child-care resource and referral effort, and a “quality step system,” which would pay bonuses to providers who meet higher-than-minimum standards.

The current House budget bill would appropriate $5 million for those efforts, while the Senate version is proposing $3 million.

“Rather than creating a new system, this is an effort to add or improve the education component” of existing early-childhood centers, said Nancy Loome, the executive director of the Parents Campaign, a Jackson, Miss.-based advocacy organization. That approach, she said, is more “palatable, politically speaking.”

Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, has been opposed to creating the same type of universal preschool structure that exists in some nearby states, such as Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Instead, he has favored allowing existing providers to increase services with the help of state money.

Ms. Loome added that in a largely rural state such as Mississippi, improving existing centers instead of opening more sites “is a pretty wise use of limited resources.”

Mixed Progress

Preschool advocates in Hawaii are hoping to see some momentum in light of an early-childhood task force report released in December , which recommended an affordable pre-K program for 4–year-olds as part of a comprehensive system of services for young children.

“We’re encouraged; we’re making progress,” said David A. Tom, the director of public policy for the Honolulu-based Good Beginnings Alliance, an early-childhood-education policy organization. The bill to set up an early-learning council could be the key to bringing Hawaii “out of the wilderness,” he said with a laugh.

In South Dakota, however, a bill to establish learning standards for preschool programs already operated by private providers died earlier this session in a House committee amid concerns from conservative lawmakers that passing such legislation could eventually lead to mandatory preschool.

State education officials were hoping to develop the standards to give centers uniform guidelines for teaching 3- and 4-year-olds.

South Dakota’s 19,500-student Sioux Falls school district is in the first year of a three-year pilot preschool program for as many as 350 children considered at risk for later school failure. The program is being financed by both the school district and private donors. But efforts to craft a plan to guide districts and pre-K providers statewide will have to wait at least another year.

Expansions Stall

Even policymakers in states with existing publicly funded pre-K services are facing trouble delivering as much as proposed this year.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, originally proposed a $290 million universal pre-K program for the state, but has been forced to scale back his plan a number of times because of a tight budget and opposition from some lawmakers to opening classrooms to middle-class families that are likely to enroll their children in private preschools anyway. In its recently concluded session, for example, the Virginia legislature approved $22 million for preschool funding, down from the $43 million the governor had requested. (“Virginia Lawmakers Enact Measure Taking Aim at NCLB,” March 19, 2008.)

The Senate is now proposing $38 million for the Virginia Preschool Initiative, and the House of Delegates is recommending $25 million.

In Tennessee, some Republicans have expressed the same reservations over universal access to state pre-K that have been voiced in Virginia.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, wants the state to spend $25 million in fiscal 2009 to expand eligibility for state-funded pre-K to more middle-class families. But in addition to their qualms over opening pre-K to higher-income families, Republicans in the Senate also have some competing education priorities this year, such as construction of higher education facilities and additional funding for the state’s K-12 finance formula.

And proposals for publicly funded early-childhood education may stall even in states that aren’t facing a fiscal squeeze. “A couple of these wilderness states actually have budget surpluses,” Ms. Rubin said.

In Alaska, which is benefitting from the rising price of oil, Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, had proposed a $600,000 increase in spending to supplement the federal Head Start program, which would bring state spending in that area up to $7 million. She also is seeking $400,000 to study the creation of a separate early-learning program.

Democrats in the House have introduced similar legislation for a statewide “pre-elementary” program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

But the House finance committee has cut those items—Republicans say it was unclear how the money would be spent.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Pre-K Gaining Traction in ‘Wilderness States’

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