Early Childhood

Pre-K Remains Hot State Policy Topic

By Christina A. Samuels — February 04, 2014 6 min read
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Early education—a continuing element of President Barack Obama’s education agenda highlighted in last week’s State of the Union address—appears to be maintaining legislative momentum at the state level this year, where lawmakers around the country will deal with healthier budgets.

In California, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, has proposed a $1 billion expansion of the state’s transitional preschool program, which just started in the 2012-13 school year for students who missed the state’s kindergarten age cutoff. Mr. Steinberg wants the program to be available to all 350,000 of the state’s 4-year-olds.

On a much smaller scale, Hawaii’s Democratic governor, Neil Abercrombie, has asked state lawmakers to approve a budget that would create 32 preschool classrooms, serving 640 children.

And even states that appeared to be philosophically opposed to state-funded early-childhood education are considering a move in that direction: Idaho Rep. Hy Kloc, a Democrat, has proposed a three-year voluntary pilot program in five schools in Idaho. Other preschool proposals in the state have failed, but Mr. Kloc said he has received support for his $1.4 million program not just from early-education advocates, but from law enforcement officers and school superintendents.

Push for Funding

Early-childhood education has been a high-profile topic for governors and state lawmakers this legislative season. Among the proposals that are in the works so far:

California: Democratic Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the president of the California state Senate, wants to expand preschool to all of the state’s 350,000 4-year-olds, at a cost of $1 billion a year.

Hawaii: Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, has asked for $4.5 million to open 32 preschool classrooms across the state that would serve 640 children.

Indiana: The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a $25 million voucher proposal that would give low-income families in five counties money to enroll their children in preschool.

Kansas: Republican Gov. Sam Brownback wants the state, over five years, to pick up the full cost of all-day kindergarten at a cost of $80 million. Kansas currently pays for half-day kindergarten.

Michigan: Rick Snyder, the Republican governor, proposed in his budget address adding $65 million to the state’s preschool program for low-income, at-risk children.

Missouri: The Missouri Preschool Project, a competitive-grant program providing startup funds for districts that want to expand their preschool classrooms, would see an increase from $11.7 million to $31.7 million under the budget proposal of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

Source: Education Week

“The groundswell has been incredible,” said Mr. Kloc in an interview. “People who can afford preschool send their kids to preschool. And for parents who can’t afford preschool, this is a way for them to make sure their children get the equal education that is promised to them in our [state] constitution.”

‘A Far Better Year’

The Education Commission of the States released a report in January that said 30 states and the District of Columbia increased appropriations for state-funded preschool programs for fiscal 2014, marking a second straight year of additional pre-K investments. State funding grew by $364.7 million, for a total of $5.6 billion, which represented a 6.9 percent increase over fiscal 2013.

The increased spending in early-childhood education comes after several years when money was shifted away from such programs, said W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. NIEER’s latest preschool report covers the 2011-12 school year, and notes that state funding had fallen by $400 per child compared with the previous year, bringing funding down to an average of $3,841 per child despite stagnant enrollment. In 2011-12, about 1.3 million children were enrolled in state-funded preschool, according to NIEER.

In contrast, lawmakers in many states are currently debating not whether to fund early-childhood programs, but how much to give, Mr. Barnett said. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for example, has proposed a $1.5 billion increase over five years to provide universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a Democrat, is seeking state approval to tax high earners in the city in order to pay for preschool and after-school programs. His proposal would collect about $530 million over five years.

“This is a far better year than we’ve seen in a long time,” Mr. Barnett said.

But in certain states, some of the increases currently proposed are “just getting states back to where they were,” Mr. Barnett said. Sometimes, the competing proposals reveal uncertainty in the numbers: New York Commissioner of Education John King testified before the state legislature last week that full-day preschool could cost the state $1.6 billion a year, far less than Gov. Cuomo’s proposal.

Bruce Atchison, the director of the Early Learning Institute at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said that increased funding is only part of what states are expected to do in this year’s legislative sessions. He said that states may also make moves to improve their governance structures and create a seamless “P-20" education continuum, or they may bolster their early-learning quality standards. Half the states currently mandate kindergarten entry assessments, which are given to children when they start school and are intended to guide teachers in determining what extra assistance a child may need. More states may enact policy about such assessments, Mr. Atchison said.

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“I think we are turning a corner in the country, and people are starting to get it,” he said. “We have over 50 years of pretty solid research on this.”

Federal Efforts

The federal government is continuing its own efforts to support early learning. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed a $75 billion program that would support states that wanted to expand their preschool offerings. At his address to Congress a year later, Mr. Obama said he was repeating that request, but that he wasn’t going to wait on Congress to take action.

“Thirty states have raised pre-K funding on their own. They know we can’t wait. So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year, we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a Race to the Top for our youngest children,” Mr. Obama said.

The recently approved fiscal year 2014 budget bill provides $250 million for another early-learning Race to the Top competition; 20 states now share in the federal money from previous competitions.

Early education enjoys a broad base of support from organizations beyond the traditional advocacy groups. That is true in Michigan, where “there’s no question [funding increases] would not have happened without the support of the business community,” said Doug Luciani, the president and chief executive officer of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Michigan allocated $65 million to its early-childhood preschool program for children from low-income families in the previous fiscal year. In his January budget address, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said he would like to appropriate an additional $65 million to eliminate waiting lists.

“Our governor didn’t need any convincing on the effectiveness,” said Mr. Luciani, who is the co-chairman of the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan. “What he really wanted to know is if he would have political cover if he put this in the budget.”

Mr. Luciani cited universal pre-K and high-quality child care as the ultimate goals in Michigan. He predicts that Mr. Snyder’s proposal will be approved.

“The state has the money, it was successful last year, and lawmakers, far from being vilified for creating a nanny state, have been widely praised,” Mr. Luciani said.

Philosophical Split

Currently, nine states have no publicly funded preschool. For them, the issue may not be funding but philosophical opposition.

In Idaho, for example, Mr. Kloc said that the opposition argues that preschool is a family’s responsibility. Other objectors say the state should focus on different educational priorities.

Mr. Kloc said his bill is intentionally small and time-limited, to allow lawmakers to see if preschool can work in the state.

“I believe in taking small steps just to be able to convince people who have already had their minds made up,” Mr. Kloc said. “Eventually, with the groundswell I’ve seen, [preschool] will come here. I hope it’ll be this session and if not, I’ll be back with the same bill again.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Pre-K Remains Hot State Policy Topic

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