Underfunded and Under Five

AP Photo/The Winchester Star, Jeff Taylor

As we contemplate the possibly bright future of pre-K laid out in Obama’s state of the union address this year, in which the feds work together “with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” along comes a sobering glimpse of what public preschool looks like now. It’s not quite as rosy.

Rather than charting progress toward getting all four-year-olds ready for kindergarten, the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual survey of programs, just issued last week, shows a system in disrepair—or perhaps even retreat. Even as recognition of the benefits of preschool for four-year-olds has grown, the actual implementation of it has stalled—and, in places, lost ground. Meanwhile state funding for pre-K has gone down by more than half a billion dollars in the last year, according to NIEER. In 2012, state spending per child fell to well below what it was ten years ago.

The backsliding, which can be blamed in great part on the recession, affects both the number of kids in public pre-K and the quality of education they get while there. “Even though the economies are bouncing back, you’re seeing state legislatures and governors are still slow to replace and or grow early learning programs,” says Kris Perry, executive director of the DC-based advocacy group the First Five Years Fund. The lag poses a serious threat to young kids, according to Perry. “It’s like when you defer maintenance on your home. You can put a bucket under the leak and survive another winter. But at some point, you’re going to jeopardize the health and safety of the children in your home. That’s what’s happening with pre-K.”

Consider Georgia, one of two states, along with Oklahoma, that Obama hailed as models when he unveiled his national pre-K plan. Despite the impressive reach and quality of its program, Georgia has hit a major financing hiccup. The state funds pre-K entirely through the state lottery, which also pays for the state’s college scholarship program. Though the lottery was thought to be a fairly steady funding source, in recent years its revenue began to dwindle even as tuition costs continued to rise, leaving less money for pre-K. To deal with the shortfall, the state increased pre-K class sizes, putting 22, rather than 20, four-year-olds in classrooms with two teachers. It also cut the pre-K school year from 180 to 160 days, leaving working parents of four-year-olds to scramble for childcare on the days without school.

While leaving the overall number of kids in pre-K largely unchanged, the losses have taken an unforeseen toll on the state’s four-year-olds, according to Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. Because of the reduction in work days, which translated into a roughly 10-percent reduction in teachers’ salaries, many of the veteran Pre-K teachers quit, leaving this years’ crop of students to less experienced teachers. “We know the quality of a child’s education is really dependent on those teachers,” says Binderman. “Experience matters.”

Still, Georgia has weathered the economic storm better than some other states. California, for instance, has cut 30,000 pre-K slots since 2008. And while access is a huge problem—100,000 four-year-olds in California have no public preschool slots—those lucky enough to be in the program have suffered, too. In the last year alone, the state cut the amount it spends on each pre-K student by more than $1,000. That’s meant that a state that already doesn’t require its teachers to have bachelors degrees or its teachers’ assistants to have any special certification (two markers of good pre-K, according to NIEER), is now sharply curtailing trainings meant to prepare these adults to teach numbers and letters, and how to deal with kids with special needs.

“In the past, programs were providing between 30 and 45 hours of professional development during the year,” says Celia Ayala, chief executive officer of Los Angeles Universal Preschool. “Now they get no more than 15.” And while the state licensing authorities used to visit pre-K classrooms once or twice a year to scout for dangers like splintery wood, peeling paint, and uncovered electrical outlets, such visits now take place about every five years, according to Ayala.

Meanwhile, North Carolina, which had already cut the number of four-year-olds by 19 percent between 2010 and 2011, is in the midst of further slashing its program. The legislature is now considering a bill that would cut the income limit for eligibility to the state pre-K program in half, so that only children living below the poverty level would qualify. If it passes, some 10,000 fewer children will be able to attend pre-K.

In Texas, as elsewhere, huge fiscal shortfalls have slashed pre-K budgets. What’s different there is that, by law, the state has to provide eligible children with pre-K. Since they’re strapped for money to hire new teachers and can’t turn anyone away, many school districts there have seen Pre-K class size rocket. Though NIEER recommends that pre-K classrooms maintain a ratio of no more than ten four-year-olds to every teacher, classes in Texas have gotten as big as 26 four-year-olds with a single teacher, according to a survey conducted by Region 13 in central Texas. Reports of even bigger pre-K classes are not uncommon.

Though they have yet to restore education budgets to pre-recession levels or alleviate the overcrowding, even some Texas early-education advocates say they’ve made important steps in recent years. “We’ve done a good job starting to change hearts and minds about whether pre-K is worth anything,” says Laura Koenig, school readiness director of the Education Equal Economics Alliance in Austin. After the last legislative session, “we did a study and showed that children who attended pre-K were more than four times as likely to be ready for kindergarten as those who didn’t. And we put it in the hands of people who make decisions,” says Koenig. “And this legislative session, the question is not whether pre-K is effective. It’s how are we going to find the money to fund it.”

To a certain extent, the rest of the country finds itself in the same predicament. The NIEER report shows that state early education standards have improved over the last ten years, suggesting a growing understanding of the importance of pre-K. Now the question is whether states that have programs can raise enough funds to get them back on track and those who don’t can figure out how to start them. In large part, the answer depends on if the Obama administration can get the federal funds to help with all of it.

At least some early education experts think securing paying for pre-K shouldn’t be that difficult. “We spend 6 trillion every year on state, local, and federal government,” says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Something like preschool, it’s rounding error. We could provide every four-year-old with a great program for a quarter of one percent of that. It really is quite a small thing to do.”

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