States have taken different approaches to expanding early childhood education.
Eight, starting with Georgia in 1995, have tried to jump-start their efforts by writing into legislation the goal of making preschool accessible to all who want it – so-called universal pre-K.
Pennsylvania avoided that route. Instead, the administration of Gov. Edward G. Rendell has chosen to increase child care subsidies for low-income parents, provide support so centers can meet higher standards, and partner with school districts to expand programs for three- and four-year-olds.
But with or without universal pre-K legislation, states have struggled with the same issue – balancing the expansion of services with quality control. Advocacy groups acknowledge that expansion for its own sake is not the right approach.
“It is only high quality preschool that makes a difference,” said Scott Moore of Preschool California, a non-profit advocacy group.
Among the states that have universal pre-K laws – Georgia, Florida, Illinois, New York, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Iowa, and the District of Columbia – there is no consensus on what “universal” means.
Georgia targets four-year-olds. Illinois and a few others add three-year-olds. A few aim at the entire 0-5 population.
The passage of such a law does not guarantee additional funding, said Albert Wat of Pre-K Now, a campaign of Pew Charitable Trusts. It can be a catalyst, he said, but must be accompanied by sustained advocacy “to get buy-in from key policy makers on the importance of investing in young children.” The most successful efforts have taken legislators to high-quality programs and presented evidence of their long-range benefits.
In states that have moved slowly on pre-K initiatives, some cities have taken action on their own. Boston has a program called Thrive in Five, a $5 million, 10-year plan to prepare children for school from infancy.
The program started after Massachusetts rejected universal pre-K in 2006, but created a pilot grant program to schools and community-based organizations for quality improvement. As of 2009, it had spent $12.1 million, and an evaluation last year found the grants had a positive effect.
But Amy O’Leary, the director of the advocacy group Early Education for All, said the aid is a drop in the bucket. The city needs about $600 million to get all children into high-quality care.
Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) had some of the same challenges. Funded by a state tobacco tax, LAUP is a five-year, $600 million investment aimed at making voluntary, high-quality preschool available to every four-year old in the county by 2014, regardless of family income.
While it helped 9,147 children access care in 2008-2009 and funded more than 300 preschools, it cannot support all the centers that ask for help. The new state budget decreased funding for child development, and California voters defeated a ballot initiative in May to provide more money for preschool.
“In order for LAUP to do what it was created to do, there needs to be some sort of new state/federal stream of funding,” said Moore of Preschool California. He predicted that “it’s not going to be happening anytime soon.”
But Cornelia Grumman, director of the national nonprofit the First Five Years Fund, said the Obama administration has been emphasizing early education, has allotted $2.1 billion more for Early Head Start and Head Start, and has proposed Early Learning Challenge Grants for states.
“The big point here is that there is a movement afoot from the federal level … for looking at building a comprehensive birth-to-five early learning system,” she said.
While shunning the universal pre-K route, since 2002 Pennsylvania has moved from near the back to near the front in terms of states’ commitment to early learning.
Child care subsidies for low-income families climbed from $137 million to $326 million between 2002-03 and 2007-08. And the state added $39 million of its own funds to the federal Head Start program.
The Commonwealth also worked to improve quality in child care centers and preschools through Keystone STARS, which rates them on several indicators, including the learning environment and caregiver credentials.
Philadelphia currently offers pre-K to three- and four-year-olds through the state’s flagship program, Pre-K Counts, established in 2007 as a public-private initiative. Kids at risk for failure due to poverty, language, or other special needs issues are eligible.
According to Christie Balka of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a major strength of the program lies in the partnerships between school districts and community-based providers (see A partnership model that works). Still, less than 10 percent of eligible three- and four-year-olds in Philadelphia are enrolled in programs.
Balka said while quality has been maintained, “a huge challenge is expanding resources.”
Spending on early education has been a major sticking point in the stalemate over the state budget. Gov. Rendell wants to increase spending on pre-K, while Republicans want to cut it in half.
For more information on voluntary pre-K for all in other cities and states, visit www.preknow.org.