In May, the National Institute for Early Education Research released its latest State of Preschool Yearbook, based on data collected for the 2012-13 school year. At that time, 10 states had no state-funded preschool program, though since that data was collected, the number has dropped to eight—Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. My colleague Lillian posted Thursday about where the preschool situation currently stands in five of the states that were identified in the NIEER report; I’m going to talk about the other five.
State Rep. Hy Kloc, a Democrat, introduced a bill in 2014 that would have funded a small pilot preschool program in five schools, but the legislation never got a full vote. Kloc said he plans to reintroduce the bill.
Idaho was one of the states eligible to apply for federal Preschool Development Grant funds that were recently awarded to 18 states. But in a November interview with the Fox television affiliate in Boise, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, a Republican, said the state is already struggling to meet its K-12 obligations. That’s one of the reasons why he, in consultation with state schools chief Tom Luna, decided not to go after the federal money.
“Why would we add a whole new burden onto a system that is already underfinanced?” Otter told the news station.
Mississippi has dipped a toe into state-funded preschool waters, with a $3 million grant for a pilot program that started in the 2013-14 school year.
But when the state applied for a share of preschool development grant money, it was denied. Jackie Mader, a reporter for the education website Hechinger Report, wrote in an article that Mississippi’s grant application was criticized for being vague and lacking in an explicit commitment to serve children in poverty, among other problems. (Jackie is also a blogger for edweek.org, covering rural education.)
The federal grant reviewers also noted that Mississippi schools are not required to offer full-day kindergarten and that kindergarten attendance is not mandatory, which could slow any educational gains children make after finishing preschool.
“I honestly don’t think this is the time for us to be out here trying to figure out money, until we get our ducks in a row,” Danny Spreitler, a member of the state’s Board of Education and executive director of a foundation focused on early childhood, said in the article.
Montana is not alone among the Mountain West states in having no state-funded preschool. But it is unusual in that a push for preschool is coming directly from the governor. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, is proposing that the state allocate $37 million for a universal preschool program for 4-year-olds in its next two-year budget. If approved, the program would start in 2015-16.
State lawmakers have yet to take up the proposal, but the federal government is keeping the momentum going, awarding the state $10 million in preschool development grant money.
“There’s genuine excitement,” said Bullock, in an interview with Education Week after he announced his preschool proposal. The interview was conducted before the result of the preschool development grant competition was announced.
“In some of our communities, there’s already been a publically-funded preschool option. Though they haven’t been able to reach all of the kids, they’ve seen incredible results.” And seeing some Republican governors in other parts of the country espousing the benefits of preschool could be helpful, Bullock said. “It’s more than an educational issue. It’s an economic development issue,” he said.
The Granite State, which prides itself on being a state of rugged individualists, was the last state in the nation to require districts to offer at least a half-day kindergarten program, back in 2009 (though children are not required to enroll in public school until age 6.)
With that context in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that state-funded preschool has not yet gotten a foothold in the state, said Jackie Cowell, the executive director of Early Learning New Hampshire, an advocacy organization.
Cowell said she has seen some movement toward interest in preschool, however. The state applied both for Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funds and for a preschool development grant; those applications were approved both by the governor and the state schools chief. However, New Hampshire was not awarded money in either competition.
New Hampshire has been a top state for child well-being as measured by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, Cowell said. But in the most recent Kids Count report, New Hampshire’s rank slipped to 4th out of the 50 states. Child poverty has also risen, according to Kids Count, from 9 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2012. “We’ve been fairly complacent,” Cowell said, “but things are going in the wrong direction.”
In another Mountain West state with no state-funded preschool, the South Dakota business community and the United Way came together to fund a preschool pilot program in Sioux Falls in 2007, said Gera Jacobs, a professor of early childhood and elementary education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, and the former president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The children in the program, selected mainly from Head Start waiting lists, made gains. The teachers and parents both liked the program. But it lasted only until 2011. The United Way is now funding a much smaller effort in Sioux Falls that reaches about 70 children. A similar privately-funded pilot preschool program is currently underway in Rapid City.
“Money is an issue,” Jacobs said. “There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of legislative will yet to make this happen. A lot of the concern is sustainability.” She and other early-childhood advocates plan to keep a close eye on Montana’s efforts, because that state has some of the same logistical challenges as South Dakota, which has a widely dispersed rural population.
“It’s a slow journey,” she said. “Is there movement? We’re certainly trying.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.