Pre-K Politics in the States

As a candidate in 2002, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois promised voters that his administration would boost investments in early childhood programs. He ratcheted up funding by $30 million each year for his first three years in office, helping reach 25,000 more of the state's neediest children. But in 2006, he came out with his biggest promise yet: quality, universal preschool for all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds.

"Nothing is more important to parents than their children, and nothing is more important to a child's future than getting a good education," said Blagojevich in a press statement at the time his proposal was released. "And that's where preschool comes in."

Blagojevich's promise did not come out of the blue. It was built on more than 20 years of grassroots advocacy and coalition-building in Illinois, a state that has long been at the forefront of early childhood programs. As elsewhere, the movement for high-quality preschool has had to overcome the challenges of fiscal scarcity, partisanship, and competing priorities. But a broad coalition of advocates, legislators, doctors, economists, law enforcement officers, business leaders, educators, and parents, united behind a strong executive, has been able to make it possible.

Illinois was already ahead of the pack on early childhood when Blagojevich took office in 2003. The state had been investing public funds in early childhood programs since the 1980s and, in 1997, created the Early Childhood Block Grant under Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. That fund has now grown to well over $300 million. But Blagojevich's Preschool for All would be a landmark effort, a move to both reach more children and put more emphasis on quality than any state had previously attempted.

To make good on his promise, Blagojevich created the Early Learning Council, a group of advocates, policy-makers, researchers, and educators charged with forging a plan to make high-quality preschool available to all the state's children. After three years of study and dialogue, the council unveiled a plan to put an additional $45 million into the block grant annually for three years, and continue expanding funding until it could reach every child who needed it. If the legislature supported the plan and maintained funding, Preschool for All would be a reality in five years. And it would dovetail with the governor's All Kids plan to provide health care to all the state's children, putting early childhood programming at the top of the legislative agenda.

The Early Learning Council's model took a unique approach to distributing the funding, helping it reach the state's children through a variety of programs. Child-care centers, public schools, private nursery school programs, and Head Start centers could all apply, and grants would be distributed on a competitive basis.

The council created a three-tier system for determining need. The first tier consists of students who are "at risk," by virtue of either family income level, English language–learner status, or special needs. The second tier includes children from families living at below 400 percent of the federal poverty level, and the third tier consists of everyone else. In the first years the grants would go to facilities with at least 51 percent of the students coming from tier one, and by accepting state funding, education would become free for all students enrolled in the facility's preschool program. As the budget for Preschool for All grows, the programs it encompasses would expand to tiers two and three, helping accommodate middle-class families who lack access to quality programs. Importantly, 11 percent of the money would go toward expanding and enhancing programs for children from birth through age 3. Other funds would be reserved for increasing the quality of those preschools through teacher certification programs, mental- and emotional-health training, salary increases for staff, and system-wide program evaluation. Each child in Illinois should have access to a preschool program with a certified teacher who has attained at least a bachelor's degree.

The Illinois reformers learned an important lesson from recent disappointments in Florida, where legislators enacted universal pre-K with little attention to standards. Rather than mandate immediate, free preschool for all without attention to quality or capacity, as Florida did several years earlier, Illinois' program would expand incrementally, focusing on quality. This dimension helped garner support from middle-class families.

When the budget expansion went before the state legislature in 2006, it passed unanimously in the House and with broad bipartisan support in the Senate -- a resounding success in a state where few issues enjoy such agreement. In the first year, preschool became available to 12,000 more Illinois children, and by the end of the rollout, the state plans to serve another 38,000 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds who lack access to high-quality pre-K.

Illinois' leadership on this issue seems partly a function of a unique alignment of the stars in the early childhood galaxy. They include the late philanthropist Irving Harris, whose family took a personal interest in early childhood education, and helped found Chicago's Erikson Institute, a premier child development graduate program, as well as the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an influential advocacy and research organization. The Irving Harris Foundation (which generously supports The American Prospect) and other prominent Illinois funders like the McCormick Tribune Foundation invested millions of dollars in early childhood programming and organizing, increasing awareness about the issue and building a powerful network of advocate groups in the state. For more than two decades, these foundations and advocates helped demonstrate the importance of pre-K to citizens across a range of incomes, and have made early childhood programming an issue legislators and gubernatorial candidates can't afford to ignore. More recently, the voice of Nobel-winning economist James Heckman, a University of Chicago professor, has been enormously influential as well.

The economists in the coalition vouched for the findings of the Perry Preschool study, one of the most-cited analyses of the benefits of early childhood education, which found that spending $1 now on preschool can save $17 down the line on the costs for special education, incarceration, and an undereducated workforce. The coalition also includes educators, who stress that students who attend high-quality preschools are 29 percent more likely to complete high school and 41 percent less likely to need special education programs. It also includes law enforcement officers and members of associations like Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, who have made the case that investing in early childhood programs sharply reduces crime rates and later costs to the criminal justice system.

The societal and cost-saving benefits were echoed across the board and in a concerted media campaign, helping show political leaders that it isn't just about doing what is right for children and families -- it's about doing what is right for the state. And according to Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund and co-chair of the Early Learning Council, the key to making policy-makers see the value of early childhood programs is helping them recognize these fiscal benefits.

"It's not kid-loving, feel-good advocacy. It's really a very thoughtful solution to a lot of very expensive social-justice issues we have today," Meyer said. "There's one policy decision to be made, and that is, 'How do you spend scarce resources?' They're falling increasingly on the side of spending it early rather than later, to fix problems."

Advocates held regular meetings with representatives, identifying leaders in the state House and Senate who could help educate their peers and bring more supporters on board, from both sides of the aisle. "[Gov. Blagojevich] has taken a huge role in moving it up to a higher level, but we already had the groundwork for it done," said Beth Coulson, a Republican representative from Glenview, Illinois, who worked closely with advocates to host educational forums for fellow lawmakers and expand the political tent of supporters. Coulson had been a physical therapist and professor of child development at Chicago Medical School for 22 years before coming to the state legislature, making her a natural ally.

By 2003, that political tent was so large that both Republican and Democratic candidates for governor were standing under it. "I think it speaks volumes about the political culture in Illinois that it produced a candidate for governor that explicitly made early learning a part of his platform and a part of his perceived mandate," said Elliot Regenstein, former education policy adviser to the governor and current co-chair of the Early Learning Council. "We had almost perfect conditions for a dramatic expansion of early childhood programs."

Of course, legislators and advocates didn't agree on every detail of the final package, and there are still some very real concerns about limitations on physical space available for new programs and about how to distribute the funds, Regenstein said. Even among the advocate community, there were concerns that the package didn't invest enough in birth-through-3 programming. Down the line, they're hoping more money can go toward children's first years. And each year will be a struggle to get more funding into the entire Preschool for All program -- in just the second year, the budget allocated by the legislature fell well short of the $69 million increase proposed by the Early Learning Council, though the final details of it were still being hashed out at press time.

Pennsylvania made pre-K a priority later than Illinois, but its march toward an exemplary early education system bears a lot of similarities: a strong advocacy community, engaged philanthropists, a broad coalition of support, bipartisan leadership, and a solid foundation to build on. Most of all, both states have a governor who came into office already batting for pre-K. When Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania took office in 2003, early childhood education was at the center of his agenda.

"We have a governor who has been particularly understanding of the foundational importance of early childhood, and he's understood it from two perspectives -- both an educational benefit perspective and the economic development perspective," said Harriet Dichter, a longtime child advocate who worked for Rendell when he was mayor of Philadelphia. Dichter now heads Pennsylvania's Office of Child Development and Early Learning, a joint effort of the state's departments of Education and Public Welfare that was launched in 2004 to bring all early childhood programs under one roof.

Since taking office, Rendell has overseen the first state-level investments in pre-K, and been a stalwart champion for increasing that investment, but there has been a learning process here, too, about how to create a system for funding pre-K that everyone can agree on. In his first budget proposal, for 2003–2004, Rendell requested a $245 million investment in preschool. In a compromise with legislators, the final budget that year put $15 million into Head Start, and created a $200 million Education Accountability Block Grant, which districts could use for preschool if they chose to. The next year, Rendell's administration pushed the legislature to double the investment in Head Start and increase funding for the block grant, designating $10 million for pre-K. In 2006, they asked for and received $15.7 million for pre-K in the block grant, and brought Head Start funding up to $40 million.

Meanwhile, the advocacy community, led by groups like Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, worked to build support among policy-makers. The philanthropy community, with groups like the William Penn Foundation and the Howard Heinz Endowments (now The Heinz Endowments) at the forefront, also worked to promote pre-K, and business partnerships from around the state formed to urge legislators to fund pre-K more specifically.

Advocacy groups helped encourage citizens to send more than 40,000 e-mails to state legislators, and conducted thousands of face-to-face meetings with representatives, training parents and educators about how to lobby in Harrisburg as well. The law enforcement community, teachers' unions, the Council of Churches, and United Way were all behind it, and in the end, so were most legislators. Much like in Illinois, advocates encouraged legislators to provide funds for pre-K that could reach children through a variety of programs, and put an emphasis on quality, a tactic that helped expand support in the state. By 2007, Rendell's administration got Pre-K Counts, a $75 million fund exclusively for pre-kindergarten, available to a variety of programs on a competitive basis -- allowing 11,000 additional 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds to attend a high-quality preschool program.

The state is still working out a system to get the preschool funds to the programs and children who need them most, and implementing "quality" improvements presents an additional challenge. And like anywhere, budgetary constraints will always weigh heavily on progress. It will take at least a five-fold increase in funding to make quality pre-K universal in the state, says Sharon Easterling, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children. Unlike in Illinois, Rendell has not laid out a promise of universal pre-K, and funding increases will be made on a year-to-year basis. "This is the down payment," she says. "This is 11,000 kids out of the tens of thousands who need this service." The progress in both states is incremental -- adding new students to the rolls, while raising the level of quality across all programs takes time, extensive funding, and continued support from all constituencies. The hope is that partial expansion of pre-K will build rolling support for comprehensive access.

The model both states have set in motion is helping bring attention to early childhood education at the federal level. In May, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania proposed the Prepare All Kids Act, a program based in part on his home state's model that calls for new federal investments in high-quality pre-K, to be matched by state governments. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, have introduced the Ready to Learn Act, which would make federal funds available to states through a competitive process to help them deliver preschool through schools, child-care and Head Start centers, and other community-based providers, borrowing heavily from the success of the Illinois and Pennsylvania models. Rep. Mazie Hirono has introduced a similar measure in the House.

"We see the trickle up effect of pre-K," says Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a national preschool advocacy group, who is now seeing vigorous efforts among additional states to follow the lead of places like Illinois and Pennsylvania. And she isn't alone in hoping that state innovation will "trickle up" to Washington, and fill a void in federal investments for America's youngest children that could redound for generations to come.

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