Early Childhood

Early Education Returns to Policy Spotlight

September 18, 2009 6 min read
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Amid a recession that’s squeezing state budgets and pushing more families into poverty, teams of officials from 39 states gathered near Washington last week to explore ways to better meet the educational and health needs of young children.

The Sept. 16-18 meeting, sponsored by the National Governors Association, came as the U.S. House of Representatives debated and approved a bill that aims to pump $8 billion over eight years into states to improve the quality of early-childhood education from birth to age 5.

And it followed a U.S. Census Bureau report earlier this month about the recession’s impact on children and families, which showed that about 800,000 more children younger than 18 nationwide were living in poverty in 2008 than in 2007, for a total of 14.1 million.

Those sobering figures may not reflect the brunt of the recession, analysts say, since they don’t include the current year.

National Governors Association chairman Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vt., speaks at the Building Brighter Futures for Our Children summit in National Harbor, Md., on Sept. 16.

“The poverty statistics, to me, highlight how enormous the needs are, the vulnerability of kids,” said Olivia Golden, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Urban Institute, who spoke at the conference, which brought together teams of state education, health, and human services officials. “And the states are mostly dealing with extremely difficult budgets.”

But making changes to better integrate and coordinate state services—a major focus of the three-day NGA-sponsored meeting, held at the National Harbor complex in Prince George’s County, Md.—is no easy task, several analysts cautioned.

“The problem for states is not that there hasn’t been an intent to coordinate, but the way programs are siloed and funded makes it extremely difficult for them to work across programs, across funding streams, across agencies,” Sarah Daily, a program director at the NGA, said in an interview.

During one panel discussion at the meeting, Barry Van Lare, a senior adviser at the NGA, suggested now is a good time to tackle the difficult issue of better coordinating services.

“States are facing a major fiscal crisis, are going to be forced to make tough decisions around the allocation of resources, ... and improved efficiency may be a key to maintaining service levels, if not actually expanding programs,” he said.

Holding Steady?

No national data are currently available to assess the impact of the battered economy on various state early-learning programs in fiscal 2010.

But the worst recession in decades has certainly taken a toll on state budgets. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported in July that the states faced revenue shortfalls of $143 billion collectively as they worked to wrap up work on their fiscal 2010 budgets. New holes were expected, and they have already popped up.

To be sure, state spending on early education has risen in recent years. A recent study by the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., found that state spending on pre-K programs grew from $2.4 billion in the 2001-02 school year to $4.6 billion in 2007-08.

Meanwhile, an NCSL analysis estimated total state spending on programs of early learning and child care at $12.4 billion for fiscal 2009, up $651 million from the prior year.

Although many advocates for early-childhood programs are worried, especially with states still forecasting deep budget deficits, analysts suggest that, in general, state support for early learning so far appears to have been largely spared compared with the cuts elsewhere in state budgets.

Lisa Guernsey, the director of the early-learning initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, said: “We’re not seeing any signs of a colossal meltdown in early-learning programs. What we’re seeing is people just trying to hold on to what they have. And it’s encouraging that there hasn’t been any kind of groundswell of movement to put these things on the chopping block.”

Preliminary data from one slice of the early-learning universe—state pre-K programs—may offer some hope to those seeking to protect such programs.

Funding for prekindergarten programs increased in 21 states and the District of Columbia, held steady in four, and decreased in nine, said Albert Y. Wat, a project manager for the advocacy group Pre-K Now, based in Washington and part of the Pew Center on the States. In addition, Alaska and Rhode Island created new, modest pre-K programs.

“We think the increases are a good sign that policymakers are making high-quality pre-K a priority in their states,” Mr. Wat said. “Obviously, this fiscal year has just started, and in fiscal 2009, some states had to rebalance. We’re cautiously optimistic, but being vigilant.”

There are, however, trouble spots, such as Ohio, which eliminated its $128 million Early Learning Initiative and cut back funding for another prekindergarten program. In Illinois, meanwhile, initial proposals to virtually halve state spending on early-learning programs were replaced with an eventual cut of about 10 percent, analysts say.

Danielle Ewen, the director of child-care and early-education policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, in Washington, said that in some states, it seems that increases in one early-childhood program may be offset by cuts in another.

She pointed to Alabama, where funding for the state’s pre-K program grew to $19 million in fiscal 2010, while the state supplement for the federal Head Start preschool program was eliminated.

Federal Assistance

One big help, observers say, is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which has provided at least $5 billion for early-childhood education. Federal aid under the economic-stimulus law has gone mostly for Head Start, Early Head Start, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

In addition, the stimulus program includes money to help states set up state advisory councils on early-childhood education and care. Such councils were first called for under the 2007 reauthorization of the Head Start program, but no money was provided for them at the time.

Supporters of early learning also pin high hopes on the federal Early Learning Challenge Fund that would be created under legislation passed last week by the House as part of a larger college-loan bill.

A portion of the savings projected under that bill would be used to provide competitive grants aimed at helping states build coordinated learning systems for children from birth to age 5 that ensure they are prepared for kindergarten.

Some early-education advocates argue that the Early Learning Challenge Fund has the potential to transform the care and education low-income children receive.

“This is an extraordinarily important piece of legislation ... that is designed to drive a conversation about access to high quality for our most at-risk children,” said Ms. Ewen from the Center for Law and Social Policy. “The concern is that some states will get money to build systems, but we won’t have the access dollars we need to provide child-care subsidies and access to Head Start and Early Head Start.”

Leslie Goldstein, the early-learning policy adviser to Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington, a Democrat, estimates that overall state spending on early-learning initiatives in her state is dropping by about 5 percent in the biennial budget year that began July 1. The decrease, though, was less than in most other areas of government services, she said.

Two pilot programs had to be scaled back, and the state reduced from $4 million to $1 million the amount it has set aside for developing a quality-rating and improvement system for child-care providers.

Ms. Goldstein, who attended last week’s NGA conference, suggested that the federal Early Learning Challenge Fund—if enacted—could help continue that work, and related efforts on the quality front.

“It will help us on the road to building an early-learning system,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Early Education Issues Return to Spotlight

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