Preschool Gets Record Boost in '05

More children than ever now have access to state-funded preschool thanks to record spending increases by state legislatures in 2005.

At least 180,000 more children have access to preschool this year after lawmakers in 26 states boosted pre-K funding by $600 million during 2005 legislative sessions, the largest single-year increase for preschools in five years, according to a report issued Nov. 16 by Pre-K Now , a national advocacy group that supports universal access to preschool.

"States are investing in pre-K because they want children to do better later on in school," said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, which is funded mainly by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org .

Only three states -- Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma—have statewide preschool programs, but another 36 states offer preschool for some the state's neediest children. State investment in pre-K education has increased significantly in recent years, from less than $2.5 billion a year in 2002 to more than $3.5 billion in 2005, according to the new report.

Currently, about two-thirds of 3- and 4- year-olds already are enrolled in some type of preschool, from church nurseries to federal Head Start centers to public classrooms staffed by certified teachers. But the quality of programs varies widely state by state, and state-funded and supervised pre-K reaches fewer than 10 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide, according to Pre-K Now, which advocates universal access to preschool.

Several governors, including Jeb Bush (R) in Florida, Rod Blagojevich (D) in Illinois, Bill Richardson (D) in New Mexico, Phil Bredesen (D) in Tennessee and Christine Gregoire (D) in Washington, have made the push for preschool a cornerstone of their education policies.

They've been heeding calls from advocates and early-education researchers who say that students attending high-quality preschools do better in kindergarten and throughout school, and after graduation are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to attend college, get jobs and pay taxes.

Still, support for preschool is not universal among early-education researchers.

A new study released this month by researchers at the University of California Berkeley and Stanford found evidence that preschool hinders social development. The study, " How much is too much? The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children's Development Nationwide ," found that children who attended preschool at least 15 hours a week are more likely to display more negative social behaviors, such as acting up or having trouble cooperating, than their peers. Children from better-off families were most likely to exhibit social and emotional development problems, said UC Berkeley sociologist and co-author Bruce Fuller.

The report also found for the first time that middle- and upper-class children—not just kids from the poorest families—have better language and math skills from attending preschool.

That mixed results should be "a bit sobering for governors and mayors—including those in California, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina and Oklahoma—who are getting behind universal preschool," said Fuller.

The study did not examine the quality of individual preschool programs, which advocates argue is necessary before drawing conclusions about the effects of preschool.

Doggett called the study "interesting," but said it made clear "that neither its authors, nor many parents have a full understanding of what exactly a high-quality pre-kindergarten program looks like."

There were no regional trends in preschool spending, according to the Pre-K Now report, with increases of more than 30 percent in at least 10 states: Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. Only two states—New Jersey and Vermont—cut funding for preschool in 2005, compared to seven states in 2004.

Nine states—Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming—do not fund preschool.

More than half the new funding in 2005 was in Florida, which launched the state's first preschool program this fall for $387 million, three years after residents voted for a ballot initiative demanding state-funded preschool for all 4-year-olds. 

Blagojevich fulfilled campaign promises to expand preschool access in Illinois despite a budget shortfall of more than $2 billion. Illinois increased state spending on pre-K $30 million for each of the past three years, providing access to more than 8,000 additional children in 2005, according to the report.

"We know that children who have opportunities to start their education early in life have much better chances of succeeding later in life," Blagojevich said in a prepared statement.

Preschool was not on the agenda for governors in Arkansas and Nebraska, but lawmakers in both states significantly boosted pre-K funds in 2005.

Nebraska increased preschool spending by 76 percent to $3.7 million. Arkansas lawmakers boosted pre-K funding by $20 million and extended a 3 percent tax on beer set to expire in 2005 to preserve another $13 million earmarked for preschool.

"It was a hard sell for some of our legislators for a while, but we looked at the very compelling research on young children's brain development and convinced them that this is the direction we need to go," said Arkansas state Rep. LeRoy Dangeau (D).

Tags: Education