Early Childhood

Preschool Programs Tread Thin Budget Ice

By Christina A. Samuels — June 16, 2009 6 min read
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Early-childhood programs remain popular among state lawmakers, who for the most part have attempted to hold the line on cuts even in the midst of the recession.

But as states enter a new budget cycle this summer, it’s possible preschool programs may end up being trimmed along with other budget items, said Julie Poppe, an early-childhood policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, in Denver.

“For fiscal 2010, how is pre-K going to stand up? I don’t know,” Ms. Poppe said.

Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Washington-based Pew Center for the States, released a report last month that said states were continuing to finance preschool programs, though at more modest levels than in the past. Of the 41 states mentioned in “Leadership Matters: Governors’ Pre-K Proposals Fiscal Year 2010,” 14 were planning increases in funding, or had increases built in as a part of an overall school funding formula.

Governors in three of those states—Alaska, North Dakota, and Rhode Island—proposed new early-childhood programs where there were none before. Thirteen states were planning to “flat fund” prekindergarten programs, a move that might have earned criticism from Pre-K Now in previous years, the report noted, but is now seen as an attempt to protect the programs. Another five states planned cuts. Nine states have no state-financed prekindergarten program, and nine others pay for their programs through their school funding formulas.

“When governors choose to protect or increase state pre-K funding, they make a down payment on children’s school readiness and on their states’ economic well-being,” the study said.

‘Necessary Choices’

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon S. Corzine announced last month he could not follow through on a planned $25 million expansion of full-day prekindergarten for an additional 6,100 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. About 40,000 preschoolers are now served by the program.

“These are tough but necessary choices,” Mr. Corzine, a Democrat, said in a May 15 statement. “The cuts we are making are unprecedented, but we are experiencing a national economic crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations.”

In Ohio, the House of Representatives voted April 29 to cut $244 million in early-childhood funding from its two-year budget proposal, almost undoing the $270 million hike that was part of the previous biennial budget. The House spending plan will be reconciled with the Senate’s proposal in conference committee.

But in Texas, early-childhood programs got a boost when the state legislature passed a bill that would help maintain full-day preschool programs for some districts that were faced with losing money under a new preschool funding formula. The bill, which passed May 27, had 100 co-sponsors in the House, and is expected to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, said Kara Johnson, the executive director of the Texas Early Childhood Education Coalition in Austin.

Pre-K State of Mind: Texas Representatives Diane Patrick and Rob Eissler, both Republicans, talk about prekindergarten legislation.

“This is one of our most popular bills this session,” Ms. Johnson said.

While some funding streams are holding steady, states are cutting other funding sources, such as state child-care subsidies, that are used to pay for full-day, full-year preschool programs, said Danielle Ewen, the director of the child-care and early-education policy team for the Washington-based Center for Law and Education Policy.

“My impression is that states are trying to hold the line,” Ms. Ewen said. But whittling away at the patchwork of other funding streams has left state preschool programs in a difficult position, she said.

A ‘Juggernaut’?

Most state-financed preschool programs are for the children of families in poverty, as are the federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start programs for low-income mothers, infants, and toddlers.

Some advocates are pushing for universal access to preschool, regardless of a family’s income. They are bolstered by the Obama administration’s support for expanding early-childhood programs through the federal economic-stimulus package and the president’s proposed fiscal 2010 budget, both of which provide more money for programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start.

The president’s budget proposes $7.235 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start, an increase of $122 million over fiscal 2009. That does not include the $2.1 billion over two years that the programs will receive through the economic-stimulus bill passed in February.

Mr. Obama has made clear that early-education programs will be one of the cornerstones of his domestic agenda. The goal, according to his May budget message, is to create “comprehensive [age] zero-to-five systems that prepare children for kindergarten and beyond.”

But others worry that the administration’s efforts may lead to an unnecessary entitlement program.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published a book this month called Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut, which argues that preschool should remain focused on children from low-income families.

So far, only Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma have universal preschool, but the push for universal programs has grown over the past decade or so, Mr. Finn said in a recent interview.

Instead of creating what he calls a windfall for the middle class, Mr. Finn believes it would be better to set up a focused, intensive program for children who might otherwise enter school at a serious academic disadvantage. A place to start is with Head Start, which doesn’t call itself a preschool program, but should, he argued.

“Why not take the one big targeted program and give it a total makeover instead of starting from scratch?” Mr. Finn said. “I am not sure that making this just another grade in public school is the right way to think about this.”

If federal funding for preschool is expanded, then a voucher-like program such as Florida’s might be an option for maintaining a diverse set of options for parents, he said. That program, for all 4-year-olds, offers fixed funding per child to private, public, or faith-based providers.

The book has met with strong criticism from preschool advocates such as W. Steven Barnett, a co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research in New Brunswick, N.J.

In its “State of Preschool 2008” report, the institute notes that more than 80 percent of all 4-year-olds already attend some kind of preschool; about half are enrolled in publicly financed programs. The institute recommends increasing government funding and improving standards, so preschool can be universally available to all four-year-olds by 2020.

Existing programs vary tremendously in quality, Mr. Barnett said, and parents are just trying to cobble together solutions. The need for high-quality programs is strong, he said, even for children who come from more-affluent families.

“One of the problems with targeting is that it leaves middle-class kids behind,” he said.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, says that both of these arguments are dated. The economic recession is forcing states to target scarce dollars.

“What we’re seeing in several states is tough-headed thinking about setting clear spending priorities,” said Fuller, the author of Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle Over Early Education.

The Obama administration’s spending so far, like increasing funding for Head Start and proposing a new visiting nurse program for low-income families, suggest that it, too, prefers to spend federal dollars on low-income children, Mr. Fuller said. In his book, he argues that high-quality preschool has been shown to have a positive effect on children from low-income families, but modest to no effects on children from middle-income and affluent families.

“I think it’s encouraging that the most recent policy developments are where the empirical evidence is,” Mr. Fuller said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Preschool Programs Tread Thin Budget Ice

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