Early Childhood

State Electoral Results Leave Pre-K Advocates Nervous, But Hopeful

By Maureen Kelleher — November 30, 2010 6 min read
Scarlett Omic, 3, rests with some baby dolls during playtime at Sunrise Preschool in Peoria, Ariz. Voters in that state rejected a proposal to turn money set aside for early-childhood programs back to the state’s general fund.
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For early-childhood advocates, the midterm elections—with Republicans taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives and adding to their minority in the Senate—steepened the uphill climb they already faced to maintain federal funding in Head Start, Early Head Start, and subsidized child care.

But while a tide of fiscal conservatives and continued state-level budget crises may add to pressure for rollbacks in some state early-learning programs, the advocates hope the base of bipartisan and voter support that has largely preserved gains in state prekindergarten programs may still provide some shelter.

“It’s not done until it’s done,” said Harriet Dichter, the national policy director for the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy group based in Chicago. “It would be prudent to continue this work even when people are in a mode of stripping down public spending.”

Advocates are girding for the prospect of budget cuts at the federal level. The First Five Years Fund estimates up to 300,000 children stand to lose their spots in Head Start, Early Head Start, and publicly funded child care when Congress tackles the overdue fiscal 2011 budget.

Federal aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the 2009 economic-stimulus program—has helped Head Start and, especially, Early Head Start expand services. But the stimulus funding has come to an end. Lisa Guernsey, the director of the early-education initiative at New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, said that “it’s highly unlikely that the newly elected Congress will decide to sustain budgets at those levels.”

Said Lisa Klein, the executive director of the Birth to Five Policy Alliance: “There’s doom and gloom out there. ... We know budget cuts are coming down the line.”

State-Level Turnover

The GOP took control of at least six additional governors mansions in the Nov. 2 elections; Republicans now will hold 29 governorships, to 19 for the Democrats and one held by an Independent. (One race, in Minnesota, was still in play at deadline.) With major gains also at the state legislative level, the GOP now controls both legislative chambers in 25 states.

Yet of the 15 states that increased pre-K funding for fiscal 2011, only five—Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Michigan and Tennessee—saw a change in the mix of party control between their executive and legislative branches after Nov. 2, said Marci Young, the project director for Pre-K Now, a research and advocacy arm of the Pew Center on the States, based in Washington.

Pre-K proponents were cheered, in particular, by electoral outcomes in Arizona and California.

In Arizona, voters defeated Proposition 302, which would have swept a tobacco-tax fund set aside for early childhood back into the state’s general revenue fund. State lawmakers already had built $385 million into the budget in the expectation that the measure would pass.

Susan Carter, a teacher at Sunrise, reads aloud to her prekindergartners.

“We were delighted the voters reaffirmed their commitment to very young kids. Given the overall political dynamic and the economic situation, I’m very pleased,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, the executive director of First Things First, the state agency in Arizona that administers the fund.

In California, the gubernatorial contest was won by Democrat Jerry Brown, who already has a strong record of support for early-childhood programs from his previous two terms in the job, from 1975 to 1983. And the newly elected state superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torklason, “consistently spoke about early education in his campaign,” said Catherine Atkins, the executive director of Preschool California, a statewide advocacy group. “We’re excited about that.”

But persistent fiscal woes put pressure on early education in the Golden State. In early October, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, used a line-item veto to cut $256 million from a state fund providing child-care subsidies for welfare-to-work graduates. On Nov. 17, the state superior court in Alameda County approved a settlement extending the program through Dec. 31.

Ms. Atkins is hopeful the Democratic-controlled legislature will make restoring those funds its top priority in the next session.

“It’s going to be hard work to do that with the deficit getting bigger every time they issue a new report,” she said, but Democratic lawmakers are “saying this is not the place where we should be making cuts.”

Hoping for Preservation

States such as Alabama and Tennessee saw leadership changes at various levels, but boosters of early-childhood programs are cautiously optimistic that preserving those will remain a priority among policymakers.

“We feel like we’re in a pretty good position,” thanks to strong support from the business community, said Jan Hume, the executive director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance. “But this is all very new. It’s changed the landscape.”

Both chambers of the Alabama legislature are now under Republican leadership, and Gov.-elect Robert Bentley will succeed fellow Republican Bob Riley.

In Tennessee, Republican Gov.-elect Bill Haslam, who replaces a Democrat, has pledged to maintain the state’s pre-K program at current levels, said Stewart Clifton, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Association for the Education of Young Children.

“We’re pretty optimistic we won’t go backwards on funding, but nothing is [a] given,” he said. “We’ll educate new [legislators] on the benefits of pre-K.”

In Iowa, Republican ideological opposition to the state’s universal, voluntary pre-K program for 4-year-olds may be tempered by its effects on constituents, said Sheila Hansen, the policy director for Every Child Counts, an effort of the Child and Family Policy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Des Moines.

During the campaign, Republican legislators who have expressed opposition to the program, which began in 2007, “changed their tune a little bit when they got into their communities and their school boards and constituents started talking about it.”

Iowa’s Republican governor-elect, Terry Branstad, who will be returning to the office he held for four terms starting in 1983, tacked away from his initial opposition to the program as his campaign progressed, but after the election he reaffirmed his intent to eliminate it, Ms. Hansen said. “We’re trying to get a meeting with him,” she said, “because we don’t know where he is on this.”

Iowa’s pre-K program is open to all regardless of income, but only 84 percent of school districts are participating, and not all can serve 100 percent of their 4-year-olds.

Through a spokesperson, Gov.-Elect Branstad said he wants to preserve state assistance for low-income families to afford preschool, but avoid using tax dollars to pay when families are able to afford preschool themselves.

Illinois’ Fiscal Unease

Illinois was an outlier in the election in that little changed among its policymakers. Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, narrowly won re-election, and the Democrats retained majorities in both legislative houses though Republicans gained ground in both chambers.

“We’ve always had strong bipartisan support, and I think we still do,” said Nancy Shier, the policy director for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a statewide advocacy group for early childhood programs.

But she said likely cuts in federal funding will hurt there too, warning that more than 2,000 Illinois children now in Early Head Start thanks to its expansion could lose their places depending on what Congress does with the federal budget.

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as State Electoral Results Leave Pre-K Advocates Nervous, But Hopeful


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