In our summer 2010 issue on transforming urban schools, Catalyst Ohio explored how the state was trying to move its early education programs forward with little new funding.
Today, we look outside Ohio to examine ways other states pay for early education.
“I think Ohio has a lot to learn from the commitment of these states,” says Katie Kelly, director of Ohio groundWork, a Cleveland-based early education advocacy group.
Kelly believes last year’s early education budget cuts resulted in the closing of child-care centers and fewer children being served. She is also concerned that cuts to existing centers have led to fewer teachers and less training.
“The total impact is still, I think, evolving,” Kelly says.
How have other states weathered the recession and held the line on their programs for preschoolers? Here are some examples worth looking at:
Oklahoma: Preschool for all According to a 2010 report from early education advocacy group Pre-K Now, just six states and the District of Columbia include preschool in their state funding formulas with no restrictions on who can take part. (Another seven include it in their funding formula with some sort of restriction.) Oklahoma is one of the former; its state officials feel early education benefits all children, not just those who come from low-income families or from certain areas of the state.
“We’re a public school,” says Ramona Paul, an assistant superintendent for Oklahoma‘s state department of education. “Public schools serve all children.”
The state’s preschool program began as a line-item, pilot-program in the budget in the 1990s. By 1998, lawmakers expanded the program to cover all children in Oklahoma and made part of the state‘s regular school funding formula, Paul says. By contrast, Ohio’s early education programs are line-items in its overall budget, rather than part of its K-12 funding formula. According to U.S. Census data, Oklahoma has nearly 500,000 fewer children of preschool age, but the percentage to the population as a whole is about the same.
Pre-K Now’s report lists a variety of benefits to including early education in the general education budget, such as the ability to provide sustained funding based on enrollment.
Oklahoma funds its schools through a formula that balances local and state money. Schools with less local funds receive more from the state, and those with more local money get fewer state dollars. The state includes all 4-year-olds in the total count, and schools can choose to offer full-day or half-day programs.
Preschool is currently a voluntary program for both parents and schools, but at last count, nearly 75 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled, Paul says.
By making preschool a set portion of schools’ budgets, Oklahoma has eliminated some of the “push-and-pull tension” many districts feel, says Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation. In other states, school officials often hesitate to offer preschool because they do not want to take money from other initiatives.
Oklahoma’s program has also allows schools to save money by partnering with local organizations--such as Head Start or the YMCA--and offering programs at alternative preschool program sites.
“We recommend it as a model for the country,” Paul says.
Montgomery County, Maryland: Investing in the youngest years Montgomery County, a district near Washington D.C. that educates students from a wide variety of economic backgrounds, found that its neediest students often were left out of early education. Although the district's superintendent put a strong focus on the importance of early grades, Montgomery County still felt like its poorest students were falling behind, says Janine Bacquie, director of the division of early childhood programs and services.
“Preschool is really the critical place where the successful school career begins,” Bacquie says.
In 2007, the district began using some of its Title 1 money to extend its half-day Head Start programs to full-day.
“We wanted to take our at-risk students and give them more time,” Bacquie says.
The district doesn’t fund preschool for all its students, but any student who qualifies for the federal free-or-reduced lunch program or requires special education services qualifies for some sort of preschool services. Title 1 schools--schools where the majority of the population is low-income--receive funding for the full-day program, and any low-income student at a non-Title 1 school has access to a free, half-day program. There is no waiting list for the programs, Bacquie says, and the district adds classes as it needs.
Guernsey says that Montgomery County’s program is unique because most districts assume Title 1 funds must be spent at the K-12 level. Even those districts who know differently don't always want to divert money from already-tight budgets, she says. But Montgomery County built preschool into the public school culture, finding that the students who succeeded through graduation were the ones who were best prepared as young children.
Bacquie says early education in Montgomery County has survived the recession‘s shrinking budgets.
“It’s a priority for everyone in this county,” she says.
New Jersey: Staggered funding based on need New Jersey is best known for its Abbott preschool program, a set of fully funded preschool programs in 31 low-income districts that resulted from the settlement of a lawsuit in the late 1990s challenging the state's school-funding system.
But the state offers its youngest residents far more than that.
New Jersey schools are categorized based on need, says Ellen Wolock, director of the office of preschool education. If enough children in a school qualify for free-or-reduced price lunch, that school will receive money for preschool for all. Other schools receive preschool funding only for students who qualify.
Under New Jersey’s funding formula, money follows individual students. Currently, the state has four different groups of schools that receive some sort of state funding for early education.
In all, the state supports preschool programs for more than 50,000 students in 146 of its 605 districts. (About 85 of those districts do not include elementary grades, meaning that a preschool program would be moot.)
The Abbott preschool program began in 1998 under court orders to provide high-quality preschool programs for low-income students. The Abbott label was removed in May 2009 when the state’s school funding formula was deemed constitutional, Wolock says, but the program continues.
The programs are expensive, from nearly $13,000 per student in Abbott districts to almost $5,000 per student in half-day programs. That probably explains why the state’s programs haven’t expanded in recent years, Wolock says. Still, the programs have not been cut. Wolock says the investment is worth it: she contends that quality preschool programs can cut grade retention in half and lessen the need for special education services.
“It’s not really just about being able to hit the ground running when they enter kindergarten, but it’s also about helping them have the skills they’re going to use throughout their education in life,” she says.