Are Pre-K Programs About To Get Gutted?

New cuts in early education spending are endangering young children and costing all of us

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When a little girl, who I’ll call Tina, arrived in a pre-kindergarten program in Washington, D.C. she was unable to recognize any sounds or letters.  By the time she left for kindergarten she knew all her letters and more sounds than D.C.’s standards require. Now, six years later, Tina’s teachers say she’s “on a roll” in school.

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There are plenty of legitimate debates about what works in education, but the importance of early-childhood education is not one of them. High-quality early-childhood programs help kids in school and in life. Why? Research shows that good programs can improve a variety of outcomes and University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman points out that dollars invested early are higher leverage than later remediation. But it’s also common sense. Tina’s teachers say that until she learned behavioral and participatory skills she was simply unable to engage with and benefit from instruction at school. It’s good for parents, too, because good programs teach them about how to be involved and advocate for their child’s education.

So why aren’t we ensuring that more students and families at-risk of school failure get this sort of support? A forthcoming report from the National Institute for Early Education Research being released next Tuesday takes a look at state spending on pre-kindergarten education. The data show two alarming trends. First, states continue to cut spending on early-childhood programs. Roughly two-thirds of the 39 states with early-childhood education programs cut spending in 2011. Those cuts come on the heels of reduced spending the last few years, and many states are planning on additional cutbacks in the next several years. At the same time states seem to be minimizing quality and increasing enrollment by supporting day care rather than educationally sound programs.

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To its credit, the Obama Administration is trying to buck the trend. As part of Race to the Top, the administration sponsored a $500 million competition to encourage states to improve their early-childhood programs. But as opposed to the main Race to the Top competition, where states took extraordinary steps to win, the early-childhood awards were too small to stimulate much action. Not a single state even called its legislature into a special session in an effort to change policies and win the money.

The administration is also cracking down on low-performing Head Start programs. In November, the President announced plans to move forward with a Head Start “re-compete” and in December administration officials indentified specific programs at-risk of losing funding. These low-performing Head Start programs will have to compete with other providers for Head Start dollars. It’s an important step because despite widespread support for Head Start, the $7 billion federal school readiness program, evaluations consistently show underwhelming results.

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In some ways, proponents of early-childhood education are their own biggest adversaries. Too often they prioritize funding and access over program quality, undersell the difficulty of establishing effective pre-school programs, and resist measures to improve accountability. All of this erodes their credibility.  The advocates are right that some of the achievement gap separating low-income students from other students begins before students enter kindergarten. But you rarely hear them talking about how the gap then continues to grow even after students enter school.

So the lack of better early-childhood education isn’t just stingy Republicans, cash strapped states, and our generally dysfunctional political environment. It’s also a reflection of the inability of much of the education world to couple demands for meaningful investments with hard-nosed efforts around quality and accountability. Privately, governors from both parties complain about the lack of a sensible center promoting quality and funding for pre-kindergarten programs.

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That’s why expanding access to early-childhood education is an issue ripe for a federal-state partnership.  Such a partnership could provide funding to states to ensure that low-income students have access to high-quality programs and to improve school readiness.  Back before he was tangling with Keith Olbermann, Al Gore proposed such a plan during the 2000 campaign. Today experts say that, depending on how much financial support a program provides for middle and upper-class parents, it would cost anywhere from $14 billion to $34 billion to ensure that every four-year old has access to a high-quality program. Sounds like a lot, but $14 billion, shared between states and the federal government to give low-income kids a much better shot in school and life is a bargain relative to our overall expenditures on education. Over time, high-quality programs pay for themselves because they steer kids away from special education and costly remedial programs and help keep them out of jail and off public assistance later in life.

For now the cost is an academic issue because our broken politics stand in the way of such a partnership – or even state by state improvement as the new spending data show. It’s a travesty because of the obviousness and the benefit for more kids like Tina. And in the long run, of course, what’s good for her is good for all of us.

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