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Pre-Kindergarten for All? Not By a Longshot

Which states are walking the walk when it comes to funding pre-K programs -- and which are lagging far behind?
 
 
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Trying to guess which states fund pre-K adequately is like going on "Jeopardy" with no preparation—it’s easy to draw a blank. But for the 1.3 million children in public pre-kindergarten classes around the country, it's a more than a game: live in the wrong state, and you may not have access to these crucial programs at all. 

Pre-Kindergarten is a rare find in the world of schooling; it comes backed by such strong evidence of its effectiveness that it finds champions in every corner. Republicans and Democrats, state, local and federal lawmakers alike admit that, as senior policy analyst Karen Schulman of the National Women's Law Center puts it, pre-K has "all sorts of positive effects." Several high-quality, long-range studies have been done, Schulman says, "documenting both short-term impacts in the childrens' performance in school, and then seeing them do better in life. They have higher earnings, they get better jobs, they are less likely to be involved with crime." 

The positive results of pre-K are so universally accepted that it seems like they would be a guaranteed investment for public education budgets. Yet in these economically precarious times, some states are indeed placing pre-K on the budget chopping block—while others are doing their best to fund, expand and improve it.

A new report from the National Institute on Early Education Research (NIEER) offers a revealing look at which states lead the pack in pre-K funding, and which states are falling behind. There’s no easily discernible pattern among states that prioritize pre-K funding and those that don't; each state has its own story to tell, and some of the states one might expect to see at the bottom of the funding list because of high poverty rates and a smaller tax base, like West Virginia and Alabama, actually perform very well.

So which state takes the cake when it comes to funding public pre-K? It turns out that New Jersey, which spends about $11,000 per child enrolled in a full-time pre-K program (nearly three times the national per-child average), is first in the country in terms of its investment in early education. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland are also putting serious money into pre-K, and ranked within the top five in overall pre-K spending in the NIEER report. So did West Virginia. 

But even as these states commit precious resources to our youngest students, a troubling trend has revealed itself. Despite the fact that early education experts are sounding a persistent call for more pre-K program – and notwithstanding an increase in total enrollment (which has risen a percentage point or two each year, from 22 percent of all 4-year-olds enrolled in 2007 to 28 percent in 2011) – overall state spending on pre-K per child is steadily declining. Given that several long-term studies have shown that pre-K is critical to ensuring positive outcomes for children later in life, these spending cuts are dismaying to observers who view funding for pre-K as a bellwether for how states are prioritizing families and education overall.

“We're sort of hitting a roadblock right now with where states are” in terms of funding for pre-K, said Schulman, who studies pre-K and other policy trends affecting women and families. “This is a time when [families] need more supports and yet the supports are being undercut at the state and federal levels.” 

Indeed, many programs have depended on funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the stimulus package passed in 2009 that funneled billions of dollars directly toward preserving education systems in the states. The NIEER report notes that “Without ARRA, per child spending would have dropped to $4054... the lowest amount since NIEER began collecting data a decade ago.” But ARRA funds are running out, and the report confirms that in some states “this spending has not been replaced.”

So with funding drying up left and right, how did New Jersey manage to out-fund everyone else? Thank the New Jersey Supreme Court: unlike most other states, New Jersey’s pre-K was established following a 1998 state Supreme Court case on equity in the schools. “There was a ruling that said preschool is part of ensuring equity,” explained Schulman. “So for the low-income school districts that were part of that lawsuit, preschool became mandated. They had a judge overseeing it and enforcing certain quality requirements.” Nearly 15 years later, the New Jersey program remains robustly funded; the state’s budget-cutting forces have so far kept their blades away from pre-K even as ARRA funds disappear.   

But funding alone doesn’t make pre-K work, so in addition to quantifying and ranking the size of states’ monetary investments in pre-K programs, the NIEER report also evaluates the quality of the programs, using benchmarks like minimum degree requirements for teachers, whether state inspectors conduct site visits, and whether a program provides at least one meal per day to determine their ranking. Which states performed best in meeting these benchmarks? Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and one program in Louisiana. In fact, if you live in Pennsylvania or California, you should know that Alabama outperformed your state in both funding and quality of pre-K programs.

California and Texas, two of the most populous states, are listed in the report as being “among those where funding is a major concern.” California, which doles out funds to pre-K programs through a competitive process but leaves quality standards up to local control, also fell to the bottom five in the quality of its programs. 

At least they’re trying. Eleven states, on the other hand, had no state-funded pre-K program at all: Arizona (which eliminated its only program last year), Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

Where It’s Working – And Why It May Not Last: A Closer Look at Maryland and Illinois 

As these states struggle to pass a cent in the direction of pre-K programs, Maryland and Illinois are two states that have indeed found success harnessing funding for these critical services. A closer look reveals how each has managed to achieve state support for pre-K – as well as the difficulty of maintaining funding in these tough economic times. 

Maryland

Maryland, which ranks third overall in funding for pre-K and 12th in access to it for 4-year-olds, has ensured steady funding for its programs by tying it to funding for K-12 education. Binding the fate of pre-K with that of K-12 education has had some benefit for kids in the state: half of all 4-year-olds in Maryland now attend some type of state-funded education program.

The link Maryland has forged between pre-K programs and the K-12 education system not just financial – it’s physical, as well. “With very few exceptions, [the pre-K programs] are all in elementary schools,” said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent in the Maryland Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Development. This approach differs from the trend in other states, where pre-K programs are often housed in child-care centers or community-based programs that provide a range of other services for families and children. 

Grafwallner says that in Maryland, “The long-term plan is what we would call preschool for all. A universal preschool approach,” with the state expanding its pre-K and child care subsidy offerings to cover all children, not just those from low-income households, as it does at present. Grafwallner notes that his department is currently piloting 10 such comprehensive programs in various parts of the state. 

But those big plans may come up against harsh economic realities; like most states, Maryland faces budget shortfalls because of the recession, and while only one county so far has had to cut back its pre-K offerings, it isn’t yet clear what the next few years will hold for pre-K in the state.

Illinois

Sessy Nyman, vice president for policy and strategic partnership at Illinois Action for Children, says her state uses a block grant to fund its version of pre-K—called Preschool for All— together with funding services for infants and toddlers. “That’s really intentional on our part,” she says of their strategic combination of funding sources. “We have a set-aside, so that for every dollar that's set aside for pre-K, 11 percent is set aside for birth-to-3. It became a really important funding stream for birth-to-3 services.” 

Unlike Maryland’s focus on school-based programs, Nyman said, Illinois Action for Children has pushed successfully to house pre-K programs in both schools and community-based organizations for young children and families, like child care or community centers. “Preschool for All is a two-and-a-half hour a day program,” she said, explaining that the state-funded child-care provided at these centers is a necessity along with pre-K. “Most low-income people don't work Monday through Friday mornings and get afternoons and summers off. We understand the realities of low-income families whose children need early learning opportunities, so we advocate for it to be available where children already are.”  

The NIEER report shows this approach is paying off in terms of providing access to programs: though Illinois ranks 15th in access to pre-K for 4-year-olds, it comes in first in access for 3-year-olds. (That’s out of 24 states with preschool programs serving 3-year-olds.)

But Illinois’ pre-K funding has been chopped back painfully in recent years, leaving it struggling along at number 32 in the country for overall spending, according to the report. The recent cuts also turn the state’s goal of serving all 3- and 4-year-olds by the end of 2012 into a distant mirage. “We are suffering under the budget crunch,” explained Nyman. “Not only do we have decreased funding for the program, but we have programs [that have been providing services all year] that haven't gotten a dime.” Nyman said that the state legislature has proposed more cuts to early childhood services, and some tough choices will need to be made if the state wants to keep pre-K and other early childhood programs operating.

“How do we turn the ship around in harbor?” she said. “It becomes really hard to work yourself out of this mess. 

“We're right now borrowing from community based organizations in the form of nonpayment,” she added. “My fear is that the fallout, from not only funding decreases but also this cash flow issue of unpaid bills, is going to have a much longer legacy in terms of our ability to service at-risk kids.”

So how can a state like Illinois become more like New Jersey? What will it take for states to begin funding pre-K and child-care more robustly?

“I think it just needs to be seen as a real priority by states,” said NWLC’s Karen Schulman. “And [for them] to recognize that this is a real investment. It helps families by providing their children with a secure place to be, and then they can work and earn income. It increases their chances for success in school which will make them more productive in the future. It helps our whole economy.”

 

Mariya Strauss is a writer who lives in Baltimore.
 
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