Early Childhood

New Governors Aim to Funnel Money Into Early Education

By Christina A. Samuels — January 30, 2019 7 min read
Colorado’s new Democratic governor, Jared Polis, has advocated for funds to enable all of the state's school districts to offer full-day kindergarten.

After campaigning on the expansion of preschool and other early-childhood programs, many of the nation’s newly elected governors are following through with budget proposals that include money to support children from cradle to school entry.

One of the largest proposals is from California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is in the enviable position of having a budget surplus projected at more than $20 billion. He has floated the largest proposal from a governor thus far, aiming to spend $1.8 billion on an array of programs including expansion of full-day kindergarten, free preschool for children from low-income families with the aim of making the program universal, and increased subsidies for child care, among other initiatives.

In Colorado, newly elected Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat, used his State of the State address to advocate for more than $200 million that would allow all of Colorado’s school districts to offer full-day kindergarten. The state currently reimburses districts for about a half-day of instruction; districts may choose to offer just a half day of programming, but others offer full-day programs by charging parents tuition, through local tax revenue, or through their own general budgets. Polis also wants to expand the state-funded preschool program in order to offer slots to 8,000 additional children, up from about 21,000 3- and 4-year-olds currently enrolled.

“Our state’s strong economic growth means we have the power to do all of this right now without taking resources away from other areas of the budget,” Polis said at his Jan. 10 speech. “As Uncle Ben once said to Spider-Man, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ I know that together we can fulfill this responsibility, which many of you have been working on for years: free kindergarten now.”

Mike DeWine, the new Republican governor of Ohio, created a state office for children’s initiatives immediately after he was sworn in on Jan. 14. During his campaign, DeWine said he would expand access to home-visiting programs for pregnant women and young children, as well as create more slots for children to attend high-quality state-funded preschool.

In New Mexico, early-childhood advocates have long supported taking some money from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for preschool, and they have a supporter in Michelle Lujan Grisham, the new Democratic governor. Lujan Grisham, in her address to state lawmakers, said she supports taking “a responsible pinch of additional money from our Permanent School Fund, ensuring we can deliver an education system that works for every child and every family in this state.”

On the Bandwagon

And it’s not just the new governors who are taking action on early childhood. Several governors who were re-elected are continuing their work in this area.

For example, Democrat Gina Raimondo, who was re-elected in Rhode Island, is advocating for a phased expansion of universal pre-K in her state. And Republican Kay Ivey of Alabama plans to continue her embrace of early-childhood programming as part of the “Strong Start, Strong Finish” initiative started in 2017.

“Clearly, our students are making significant gains through our high-quality pre-K program, however, now our challenge is to continue building on that success,” Ivey told a meeting of Alabama early-education professionals at a conference this month.

All the movement at the state level suggests that the creative thinking and sizable investments in early childhood are bubbling up from the states and in some cases large cities like Philadelphia and New York, which have their own programs.

That’s a turnaround from the years of the Obama administration. It sent hundreds of millions of dollars to states for spending on early-childhood programs, but the federal government was fairly prescriptive on how that money could be spent.

Congress preserved one policy initiative from the Obama years: the $250 million preschool development grant program. But the renewed program, which granted money to 45 states and localities in January, can be spent on children from birth through age 5. That’s a change from the legacy program, which was more narrowly aimed at preschool.

Also, Congress has intentionally taken a more hands-off approach in the renewed grant program; for example, the old program had requirements around the length of a preschool day and teacher qualifications; the new program has none of those mandates.

“I think right now it’s unrealistic to expect a big push for pre-K from the federal government,” said Aaron Loewenberg, a education policy analyst with the think tank New America, who has been following governors’ actions in the early-childhood arena.

“For the first time you see governors and gubernatorial candidates not only having early-childhood issues as part of their platform, but highlighting them on the campaign trail,” Loewenberg said. One reason, Loewenberg said, is that candidates see early childhood as a winning issue. “It doesn’t seem to have a lot of downside,” he said.

And the governors also are getting into granular details and looking at early childhood as a whole, not just as one program, such as preschool.

The California initiative proposed by Newsom “is unique in just how comprehensive it is,” said Kim Patillo Brownson, the vice president for policy and strategy for First Five LA, which supports program for young children in Los Angeles County. “Also what is noteworthy and unique is there is a clear focus on disparities between rich and poor. Equity is a part of this agenda.”

Legislative Support

Newsom’s ambitious plans are complemented by a state legislature that is also interested in programs for children, Patillo Brownson said. Previous increases in early-childhood spending have been difficult, she said.

“The prior governor never opened the new year with a package investing in young children,” she said. “The two primary branches of government that need to move together are coming from a similar frame in wanting to invest in the next generation.”

In Ohio, DeWine’s focus on home-visiting as one of his early-childhood priorities is noteworthy, said Shannon Jones, the executive director of the advocacy group Groundwork Ohio. Home-visiting programs provide trained counselors to work one-on-one with vulnerable parents and young children, sometimes for multiple years.

DeWine has proposed tripling the number of children served in home visiting programs in the state, which currently pays for more than 7,000 children through state funds. (An additional 2,000 are served through federal money that is distributed to states.) He has also proposed increasing state spending on early-childhood programs from $250 million to about $400 million annually.

“You can imagine why we’re so excited about such a strong stance there,” Jones said.

In Colorado, Polis has proposed a financial plan that would address two issues for parents of young children. He would increase the state’s contribution to school districts so that they would receive the same amount of funding for kindergarten as they do for other grades. Currently, the state pays only a little over half of a kindergarten day. However, 80 percent of the state’s kindergartners are in a full-day program. The additional cost is paid for through tuition from parents, or through local tax dollars.

“It’s a quintessential example of how your ZIP code determines your opportunity,” said Bill Jaeger, the vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “You might be fortunate enough to live in a community that offers free full-day kindergarten, but you know that they’re pulling from somewhere else to offer that.”

The state also funds some state preschool slots, which some districts use to pay for a full kindergarten day. Polis’ plan to pump more than $200 million money into kindergarten would mean freeing up money that can be used for preschool.

Shifting those dollars, plus adding about $13 million for more preschool slots, should create about 8,000 spots for preschool, enough to eliminate the current waiting list for children whose parents would like to get them in the program.

Preschool and free, full-day kindergarten have been on the policy agenda in Colorado for decades, Jaeger said. Right now, the legislature and the governor’s office appear to be aligned in a way to support those goals, he said.

“The economy and the revenue is going to open the door to getting this done,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Governors Lead Charge for Early-Education Programming

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