Special Report
Early Childhood

Pre-K Advocates Feel Fiscal Jitters, but Stay Hopeful

By Maureen Kelleher — January 05, 2011 8 min read
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In a recession-altered world where state leaders struggle to maintain their constitutional commitments to public education, early-childhood programs—popular, valued, but largely discretionary—find themselves on treacherous fiscal ground.

For a decade, at least, efforts to expand state-financed early-childhood education have gained momentum nationally, with 40 states now paying for some form of prekindergarten. The initiatives range from small pilot projects in such states as Rhode Island to Oklahoma’s universal, voluntary program funded through the state’s K-12 education formula.

The good news for early-education advocates: The recession slowed but failed to stop those efforts. In fiscal 2011, 26 states have maintained or increased their investments in prekindergarten programs, according to Pre-K Now, a Washington-based research and advocacy arm of the Pew Center on the States.

At the same time, however, 10 states have cut their programs for the same fiscal year—and another 10 have yet to start one, the center said.

The split appears to be between states that view pre-K as an economic-development tool and a long-term cost-savings strategy, and states where budget pressures are taking a universal toll or—a much rarer situation—where pre-K is still considered a frill.

Southern states have made early education a priority through bipartisan leadership, observes Steven Barnett, a co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J.

“Many Southern states see their economic future as tied to educational excellence and view high-quality early-learning programs as the foundation of such a system,” he says.

States that view early-childhood education as an investment also tend to have dedicated funding to early childhood, whether through the state education formula or a revenue-stream set-aside, Barnett adds.

Varied Landscape

According to a December 2010 report by Pre-K Now, overall state spending on prekindergarten programs has held roughly steady at $5.3 billion in fiscal 2011, a 1 percent rise from the previous fiscal year.

Of the 40 states with programs, 15 increased their funding for fiscal 2011, and four included prekindergarten in their K-12 formulas but could not project their funding in time for the report.

Some advocates see the glass as half full, given that prekindergarten has taken much less of a budget hit than have other initiatives or program areas, such as state child-care subsidies.

“Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the value of quality pre-K and are continuing to invest,” says Marci Young, the project director for Pre-K Now.

Optimists suggest that the “invest early” argument—that money spent on early childhood reaps later dividends, from fewer 3rd grade retentions and special education referrals to more law-abiding, tax-paying adults—is still gaining ground, though more slowly because of the economy.

“People’s commitment to early childhood is making this happen,” says Cornelia Grumman, the executive director of the Chicago-based First Five Years Fund. “With all the research that’s come out about those years, you can’t afford not to” make such investments, she says.

Others are more pessimistic, especially when viewing the early-childhood landscape beyond state prekindergarten programs.

“The picture looks worse [overall] than if you look at any particular segment” of the early-learning spectrum, Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research says. “A state might not cut its preschool [program], but if they cut their child-care funding, where do people turn? That creates a lot of pressure on preschool” to meet increased demand without an increase in funds, he says.

California illustrates Barnett’s point. After a protracted battle, the legislature in October passed a fiscal 2011 budget that held pre-K funding steady. But the governor, in a decision that was challenged by advocates, used a line-item veto to cut $256 million from the state’s child-care program, eliminating up to 80,000 slots.

States that have made the commitment to maintain or even expand their spending on early-childhood education have used federal economic-stimulus aid, private philanthropy, and other resources to do so. A nascent trend is to include pre-K in state K-12 education finance formulas, thus guaranteeing a steadier funding source than annual appropriations—something that proves especially valuable during recessionary times.

Oklahoma, for example, has been a leader in state-funded, voluntary prekindergarten for 30 years. “There’s a deep commitment here,” says Steven Dow, the executive director of the Community Action Project of Tulsa County.

In 1998, the state legislature incorporated prekindergarten into its K-12 funding formula and opened the program to all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income. By 2006, 98 percent of Oklahoma districts offered a pre-K program, often by partnering with Head Start and private child-care centers. Though state law allows districts to opt out of pre-K, Dow and others say few have chosen not to provide programs.

In January 2010, then-Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, chose to expand the program. Through a mix of federal economic-stimulus money matched with school bonds, federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students, and private philanthropy, Henry allocated money to serve children 3 years old and younger in Tulsa who were deemed at risk of faring poorly in school. The state is also piloting a “zero to three” program—for youngsters from birth to age 3—with a $10 million appropriation matched with $15 million in private money, mostly from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Through the downturn and the recession, the commitment to younger kids has remained a very high priority at all levels within the state,” Dow says.

Because of term limits, Gov. Henry did not run in the November election. His Republican successor, Mary Fallin, has repeatedly affirmed her support for early education, with an emphasis on public-private partnerships to stretch limited state dollars.

In September, Fallin visited a Tulsa Educare center, part of a national network of highly regarded birth-to-five education and child care centers developed by the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund. “This is a great example of how we can target our money to get the most bang for our buck,” she said at the time.

Rhode Island started a pilot pre-K effort in September 2009, despite the recession. In June, its legislature adopted a new education formula that will gradually phase in early-childhood funding over 10 years.

“Because of our budget difficulties, we knew it would be important to have a gradual increase,” says Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the director of Rhode Island Kids Count, an advocacy group. “Even with our budget problems, it’s clear our education leadership and legislative leadership understand the importance of trying to close the preparation gap in [ages] zero to five that leads to the achievement gap in K-12.”

Meanwhile, states that cut pre-K seem to fall into two categories: those where the ax fell with relative equality, and those where prekindergarten was looked at as expendable.

In New Mexico, after a three-year expansion from $5 million in state funding in fiscal year 2006 to almost $20 million in fiscal year 2009, state-supported pre-K is seeing its first, mild reduction in fiscal 2011.

“We’ve just hit hard times. It’s a sad story,” says Dan Haggard, deputy director of the early childhood services division of New Mexico’s Office of Child Development. He said there were budget concerns across all departments.

So far, the damage has been minor, thanks to a special account that the New Mexico legislature created when it began funding state pre-K in fiscal 2006 and which preserves unspent funds from year to year.

“We’ve been able to use [that fund] to absorb most of our cuts,” says Haggard. But if economic troubles persist long enough to deplete the fund, things will get tougher, he says.

Cuts in Arizona

By contrast, neighboring Arizona eliminated its Early Childhood Block Grant two years ago as a cost-cutting measure.

“We were just starting to get preschool expansion off the ground,” says Rhian Evan Allvin, the executive director of First Things First, the state early-education agency, which is financed through Arizona’s tobacco-tax fund. She says that, earlier in 2010, First Things First offered to lend the state $350 million from the fund to balance the budget. The governor supported the deal, she says, but the legislature refused it.

Instead, key Arizona lawmakers proposed a ballot referendum that would have returned the tobacco-tax fund set aside for early-childhood initiatives to the general fund. The goal was to use the money to restore cuts in K-12 education, says Paul Boyer, a spokesman for the Republican majority in the Arizona House of Representatives.

“Keeping K-12 teachers is much more important” than some programs subsidized through First Things First, he argues, such as one that taught parents how to brush their children’s teeth.

However, in November, voters rejected the referendum by 69 percent to 31 percent.

Nationally, pre-K advocates expect continuing state-level struggles to maintain funding in the face of economic and political head winds.

Tennessee is a case in point. The state piloted prekindergarten in 2005 and expanded its efforts aggressively until the recession hit, when funding reached a plateau of about $84 million. The state went on to boost funding to $86.3 million in fiscal 2011, according to Pre-K Now.

Although both candidates for governor made much of their support for the state pre-K program in last fall’s electoral contest, advocates remain cautious.

“We are really encouraged by the popularity of the program, ... but that doesn’t mean we don’t expect a big battle in the legislature this year” to preserve it, says Stewart Clifton, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Association for the Education of Young Children.

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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