Heeding studies showing that investing money in kids before kindergarten increases their chances of graduating and staying out of jail, nearly half of governors this year are pushing for — and many are getting — more funding for preschool education.
Illinois lawmakers last week approved an initiative from the governor to create the nation's first universal preschool program for 3-year-olds. And voters in California will decide on the largest proposed expansion of preschool in the nation in a June 6 ballot proposal to make preschool universally available in the state. Proposition 82 would place a 1.7 percent tax on individuals with incomes over $400,000 to generate more than $2 billion annually to finance preschool for the state's 450,000 4-year-olds. In fiscal 2006 California is spending $347 million to provide preschool to about one in five 4-year-olds.
Illinois, and perhaps California, are following the lead of Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma, the only states currently offering preschool to all 4-year-olds. Last year, 26 states boosted funding for preschool by $600 million, and a national trend towards universal preschool is gaining momentum, said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now , a national advocacy group that supports universal access to preschool. (Pre-K Now is funded mainly by The Pew Charitable Trusts . Stateline.org also is funded by the Trusts but is strictly non-advocacy.)
"Two years ago preschool was barely a blip on the radar for governors and state leaders," said Doggett, whose group released a report May 10 showing that 24 governors — the most ever — have proposed boosting preschool funding this year by a total of $250 million. Most of those governors are from states that also boosted funding last year.
But even as more states consider boosting spending, some critics oppose making preschool available to all children. Opponents of California's universal preschool proposal, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and conservative taxpayer groups, say it is too costly and would take money away from K-12 schools and other state services. They also argue that less than 9 percent of funding from the program would go to enroll "high risk" children in preschool — those from lower-income families or who historically have shown achievement gaps.
"A preponderance of academic evidence suggests that lower-income and minority children benefit most from preschool. However, the vast majority of Prop. 82 funding would seem to benefit middle- and upper-income families who already can or do send their children to preschool," William Hamm, an independent consultant and former nonpartisan legislative analyst for California, said in a recent report.
Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said targeting low-income students is not enough to boost student achievement in states such as California.
"Californians' incomes are above average nationally, and yet their students are scoring nearly dead last with states like Mississippi. That's not just poor kids having trouble, it's also poor performance of middle-class kids dragging state achievement down," Barnett said.
Support for Prop 82 has dropped in recent months, but a majority of Californians still support it, 52 percent to 39 percent, according to the latest California Field Poll . This week both supporters and opponents of the measure launched a multi-million-dollar media blitz that included television and radio commercials statewide. However, absent from the campaign is Hollywood director Rob Reiner, who launched the preschool initiative last fall but was forced to step down in March after questions were raised about whether his group violated campaign finance laws.
The initiative would establish some of the highest quality standards of any preschool program in the nation, Barnett said. Preschool teachers would be required to have a bachelor's degree and certification for early learning, and the state would establish low teacher-child ratios and strict accountability standards.
Other states also are positioning themselves to become leaders in the preschool movement.
- New York lawmakers, without support from Gov. George Pataki (R), approved a $50 million increase to begin implementing its universal pre-K program.
- In a major victory for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), the Legislature approved his request for $45 million annually for three years to make Illinois the fourth to provide universal preschool and the only state to offer pre-K to 3- and 4-year olds.
- Kentucky lawmakers approved Gov. Ernie Fletcher's (R) request for $150 million to be spent on preschools over the next two years. That included nearly $25 million per year in new funds, or a 46 percent increase.
- Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) won bipartisan passage for a new cabinet-level Department of Early Learning that will oversee the state's $30 million pre-kindergarten program. That includes a preschool funding increase of $1.2 million — about half what the governor requested — to serve an additional 300 children.
- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is credited with building the first public preschool program in his state, which ranks near the bottom in most national education indicators. After a tough fight with the Legislature this spring, Richardson got $13.5 million of the $16.4 million he requested, including a commitment to $8 million per year in recurring funding for preschools.
This year, about 20 percent of New Mexico's annual preschool budget will be dedicated to scholarships and mentoring programs aimed at getting all preschool teachers bachelor's degrees within five years. Richardson's push for pre-kindergarten is central to his plan to significantly boost student achievement, said Kurt Steinhaus, the governor's chief education policy advisor.
"New Mexico does have lots of room for improvement in student achievement, and getting children ready to achieve when they start school is the best investment the state can make in its future," he said.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) created his state's first public pre-kindergarten program, More at Four. In 2005 he championed the creation of the state's first lottery, which is expected to generate $425 million in revenue this year, all of which will go to education.
North Carolina's Legislature currently is considering Easley's proposal to increase annual preschool funding from $66 million to $84 million. The $18 million increase would come from the new education lottery and would more than double preschool enrollment from 15,200 to 40,000 4r-year-olds statewide.
Of the 20 governors last year who proposed increased funding for preschools, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's (D) request was the only one denied by state lawmakers, according to Pre-K Now.
Vilsack, who is in his last year in office and has been mentioned as a presidential hopeful in 2008, this year proposed a $15 million-per-year, five-year plan, with a goal of providing voluntary preschool to 90 percent of the state's 34,000 4-year-olds.
But the Legislature instead approved $5.5 million in vouchers to assist low-income parents with preschool tuition.
State commitment to preschool varies widely. Ten states have no preschool program: Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Many of the other 40 states serve only 1 percent or 2 percent of their state's 4-year-olds. Some states require pre-K teachers to have bachelor's degrees, but most preschool teachers are paid half as much as K-12 teachers.