Early Returns: January 2010
Lawmakers are sold on the importance of early learning programs. Now they’re figuring out how to pay for them.
By Julie Poppe
Early education programs that prepare children for kindergarten may be the single most important thing that helps them graduate from high school, stay out of trouble with the law and hold good jobs later in life.
Even though the poor economy has restricted the money available for these early programs, state lawmakers have increased funding for pre-K in the last several years. But as states try to cope with shrinking revenues—a situation expected to last at least a couple of more years—they will find it more difficult to do so.
Steve Barnett, a national researcher and economist with the National Institute for Early Education Research, argues that pre-K is an investment in the future. “When states cut pre-K, they increase the future costs of state and local government and decrease future tax revenues, so families get hurt now and in the future,” he says. Cuts in state pre-K budgets now come at “just the time when parents have less ability to pay for such programs themselves.”
Research shows pre-K improves kids’ lives in the short and long term. High-quality preschool programs help promote a child’s intellect, build strong social and emotional skills, and boost motivation.
Illinois Representative Roger Eddy, a school superintendent, started pre-K in his district more than 20 years ago. He has seen first-hand the benefits of preschool, but knows cuts are sometimes necessary. “So far,” he says, “budget cuts are not trimming [preschool] classrooms.”
Some 80 percent of all 4-year-olds attend a preschool program, with about half in public programs and the other half in private, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. More than 1 million 3- and 4-year-olds attended state-funded pre-K programs in 2008.
Holding Onto Funding
Maybe the most surprising thing about pre-K is that, for the most part, it has not been on the chopping block. According to a recent Pew Center on the States report, overall state pre-K funding in fiscal year 2010 increased by more than $64 million. A legislative fiscal survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures also showed lawmakers increased support for early care and education programs in the previous fiscal year even as budget gaps emerged.
Forty states and the District of Columbia currently provide a total of $5.3 billion in state funding for pre-K programs. Twenty-three states and D.C. increased pre-K investments for FY 2010. Alaska and Rhode Island—states that have not previously invested money in pre-K—started pilot programs. Alabama increased funding by $19 million, New Jersey increased funding by 10 percent, and Texas lawmakers authorized a $25 million increase over two years and pushed for quality improvements. And amid large budget shortfalls, Pennsylvania and Tennessee were able to keep preschool funding stable.
Some state lawmakers last year faced big proposed cuts, however. Illinois, a leader over the years in pre-K support, cut funding, along with nine other states—Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington.
Illinois Representative Elizabeth Coulson was relieved pre-K funding was cut by only 10 percent compared to the proposed 50 percent cut, and that the cuts were made to administrative costs, not services to children. “In a bad budget year,” she says, “Illinois lawmakers were able to enact a capital budget bill and provide construction dollars for preschool facilities, with no or limited decreases to services.”
A little creativity goes a long way as state policymakers look for ways to pay for early childhood education.
Maryland and New Jersey have used money provided under Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A recent Pew Center on the States report, in fact, recommends state and local policymakers consider new money under the act that was made available through the federal stimulus act.
Decision makers, including school superintendents, may not be aware that Title I can be used for preschool. This flexible funding stream allows districts to subcontract with Head Start and child care programs that meet certain standards to provide services. The U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines for using the money in 2004 and again in September 2009.
In Maryland, 24 school districts use the money for pre-K. The Montgomery County Public Schools used $900,000 from Title I last year to extend 13 Head Start preschool classes from half day to full day for a small group of children. The results are encouraging. These students made strong gains in reading and some gains in math, according to a recent study by the district. It is now using the federal stimulus money and in-kind contributions from Head Start to expand another 21 classrooms to full time. Money also is being used to provide instructional materials and professional development for early education teachers.
“Pre-K is a better use of time and a wiser expenditure of money” than remediation, says Jerry Weast, schools superintendent in Montgomery County, Md. He says he’s confident that his district’s pre-K programs are setting the foundation for academic, social and emotional skills, and the life-long desire for kids to learn.
Expanding in Texas
During the mid-1980s, Texas began a state-funded early education program for children considered at risk—poor and homeless kids, and those for whom English was a second language. In 2006 and 2007, the state added children of military families and children in foster care. With 18 active military installations and nearly 40 percent of children of active duty military personnel under age 6, Texas lawmakers thought it was important to support the educational needs of these youngsters.
Senator Judith Zaffirini, chair of the higher education committee, believes that success for students in college begins as early as preschool. “We need to look at this as a continuum. The solution to reducing the dropout rate or kids not making it to college is in early childhood education,” she says.
Representative Diane Patrick introduced a bill in 2009 aimed at creating a new grant program to provide money to school districts that want to offer full-day programs. “We can’t afford dropouts and incarceration, and we can’t afford for citizens to not be productive. We need to get kids off to the right start,” says Patrick.
The bill received bipartisan support from both Texas chambers—Zaffirini co-sponsored the bill in the Senate—and passed with two-thirds of the votes. The governor vetoed the bill, however, saying fewer children would be served if the bill were enacted because it targeted full-day programs. The Legislature was able to add $25 million to the existing pre-K grant program, bringing the funding total to more than $100 million for FY 2011.
“The bill was focused on higher quality standards, such as certified early childhood teachers, standardized curriculum, evaluation, collaborative partnerships with private providers, and increased funding to local districts to pay for the actual cost,” says Patrick.
It also would have set the child-to-staff ratio at 1:11, close to the national benchmark of 1:10. “I think the bill would have raised the level of importance of quality of preschool,” she says. She intends to address the issue again in 2011 when the legislature holds its next session.
Rhode Island Quality
Rhode Island lawmakers faced a $500 million budget gap while crafting their 2010 budget, which is on top of the $449 million gap they closed in 2009. The state is facing more budget cuts for FY 2011, revenue estimates are dire, and nearly 16 percent of the state’s 248,000 kids live in poverty.
Even so, the General Assembly is providing $700,000 for pilot programs in a variety of settings in seven school districts. Two of these new pprograms also use Title I stimulus money to help pay for pre-K. Pilot classrooms must adhere to high standards, with all pre-K teachers holding a B.A. with a state certification in early childhood education, and other national benchmarks, including smaller classrooms and fewer children per teacher.
Some in the state see early learning as the “little engine that could” moving another inch forward even in tough economic times because of legislative, business and community support and advocacy.
Rhode Island Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed has made sure early care and education programs hire certified instructors who have the appropriate skills to deal with young children. She sponsored a bill to create a quality improvement and rating system in 2007, and then sponsored a pre-K bill to explore policy and funding options in 2008. Both were enacted.
“During this serious fiscal situation, I am optimistic that the pre-K pilots will prove their value,” says Paiva Weed.
The state is using stimulus money for child care and Head Start, too. Close to $700,000 in stimulus money will pay for better quality infant and toddler care, training for early childhood teachers, financial incentives for providers to meet higher standards, and scholarships for teachers to pursue advanced degrees.
“We have learned to use a combination of strategies to increase quality and access,” says Paiva Weed. “Together, they will have a positive impact on a range of social, health and educational outcomes.”
Lawmakers are bracing themselves for prolonged fiscal difficulties as revenues decline and federal stimulus money runs out. And while legislators may be less likely to cut programs they have worked hard to expand in recent years, it’s going to be a tough year for pre-K.
Illinois’ Eddy sums up the difficult position in which many legislators find themselves. “Preschool is definitely among the priorities,” he says. “But when property values are down, pension costs are up, Medicaid costs are up and revenue doesn’t rebound in our state, this raises some tough questions.”
Julie Poppe covers pre-K issues for NCSL.
FEDERAL FUNDS FILL GAPS
In April 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it would provide $100 million in federal stimulus money to states to establish State Advisory Councils on Early Childhood Education and Care, which were mandated by the federal Head Start Act of 2007.
The federal mandate and stimulus money for each state to create an advisory council is an opportunity for legislators to get involved in early childhood policy in their state and address the needs of their youngest citizens. The councils will coordinate existing early childhood efforts among federally and state-funded programs and agencies.
States with early childhood advisory councils that pre-date the Head Start Act also can apply to receive stimulus money. Twenty-one states started early childhood leadership bodies before the federal model was mandated.
Seventeen states included legislators in council membership. Shortly after the federal act went into effect, Massachusetts and Minnesota passed legislation to create councils and both included legislators, though the federal law does not require it.
Minnesota Representative Nora Slawik, member of the governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, says the council has been working hard to secure the ARRA funds for strategic planning purposes. “Having this money will fill in some of the gaps in the early childhood system and allow us to move forward together more strategically,” says Slawik.
-Qiana Flores, NCSL