Marci Young, Director, Pre-K Now
September 8, 2011 —The federal government has elevated the importance of pre-kindergarten education at the same time states are cutting their education budgets and some are reducing funding for early learning programs.
In May 2011, the federal government announced plans to invest $500 million in the Race to The Top- Early Learning Challenge. The one-time competitive grant program seeks to increase the quality of early education programs and improve access, particularly for low-income and at-risk children.
With the school year now underway, Marci Young, director of Pew’s Pre-K Now project, explains how the federal initiative will affect state programs.
Q: What’s the significance of the Early Learning Challenge grant for pre-kindergarten programs across the nation?
A: Policymakers understand that we can’t race to the top when so many children are not even at the starting line. The Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge recognizes, at the federal level, the progress in early childhood education that’s already happened at the state level. This $500 million investment, which states can use to support existing pre-kindergarten and other early learning programs, is an opportunity for states to build on the good work they’ve already done and make further strides toward ensuring that more and more children are prepared for success in school and for life.
Q: Despite increased recognition of the importance of pre-kindergarten investments among most states, North Carolina’s legislature recently passed a measure reducing funding for pre-k. What’s at stake in North Carolina?
A: We’re certainly concerned about what’s happening in North Carolina. Despite being the home of one of the seminal pre-k programs, in early June, the state legislature passed a budget reducing funding to More at Four, the state’s pre-k program, by 20 percent. Gov. Beverly Perdue responded with the first budget veto in state history. Several days later, the General Assembly overturned Perdue's veto and passed the 20 percent cut to state pre-k. A state judge ordered lawmakers to halt budgetary changes to the program, and last month Gov. Perdue issued an executive order to protect the More at Four program.
North Carolina has been a pioneer and a leader in ensuring that more and more children have access to high quality pre-k programs. It would be a shame if that program were dismantled, so we’re glad to see that there are forces in place to try to protect against dramatic cuts. Hopefully we’ll see the tide turning in North Carolina in the near future.
Q: Given the fiscal distress states are under, do you think the budget battle in North Carolina is a trend for pre-k investments across the country?
A:. By and large, state leaders understand that pre-k is not expendable; it is essential. Pre-k is one of the most well researched public education reform strategies of the last 50 years. The vast body of research shows that when you invest in high quality early education, children tend to be more successful, resulting in savings for every dollar invested. State leaders understand that when you increase a child’s potential to be successful in school you are less likely to spend money on high cost remediation and special education services. You are more likely to have children graduate from high school and move on to good careers. Particularly in tough economic times, we need to follow the evidence and invest in strategies that have demonstrated success. Pre-K is one of those strategies.
Q: As a former kindergarten teacher you probably saw first-hand the value of successful pre-kindergarten strategies. What lessons did you learn being on the frontlines?
A: As a kindergarten teacher, there was no question that I could tell immediately which children had high-quality early learning experiences and which ones hadn’t. I had some children who came into my classroom knowing their numbers and letters and who knew how to interact with their peers and with their teachers. Other children had no concept of print and numbers. It was challenging to implement a rigorous curriculum. Quality early learning is imperative. And the folks who see this on the frontlines understand more than most that if we don’t give children all of the resources they need for cognitive as well as social and emotional development, then we do a disservice to children, to our schools and to our country.
Q: Pew will be ending its Pre-K Now campaign at the end of 2011. What do you hope to see in the pre-kindergarten movement going forward?
A: What we’d love to see in the next 10 years is an education system that is not defined as K-12 but as Pre-K-12. Moving forward, it is important to ensure that pre-k is integrated into our education system as a fundamental component. We know that children have the capacity to learn, grow and thrive before kindergarten age. When we know better, we should do better to ensure children receive quality early education.
This movement didn't start with Pew and it won't end with Pew. I have no doubt that even after this campaign ends, there will be many different stakeholders who will work tirelessly to ensure that all children have access to high quality early education.
Read more Q&As.