While students around the country are enjoying summer vacation, legislators in numerous states are still working to determine how education funding and access might be different come fall. Increasingly, policymakers at all levels are acknowledging the important role that early education, including high-quality pre-K, can play in strengthening student outcomes and closing achievement gaps. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) 2014 State of Preschool Yearbook, there was a slight increase in state pre-K spending in both red and blue states in the 2013-2014 school year and a small increase in enrollment nationwide. Yet access to quality pre-K continues to vary significantly by state.
We’ve been following the pre-K policy debates in a number of states and there have been some promising and not-so-promising developments over the last month. California Governor Jerry Brown signed a funding bill that increases early education spending by over $300 million. The vast majority of this funding will go to add more pre-K slots, both full-day and half-day. And in Alabama, where public pre-K is high on quality but low on access, Governor Bentley announced grants that will fund approximately 3,600 new slots. The developments in some states have not been as straightforward. Here’s a deeper look at how pre-K will soon change for youngsters in two states with particularly interesting pre-K debates: Minnesota and Texas.
As I wrote about last month, Minnesota had a heated and unique pre-K debate this year. A quick recap: Democratic Governor Mark Dayton wanted to use $343 million of the state’s budget surplus to create a universal, school-based pre-K program for all 4-year-olds. The state legislature, which consists of a Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate, wanted to instead allocate (less) funding to the state’s Early Learning Scholarship program-- a voucher program that provides low-income parents with up to $5,000 to send their children to high-quality school-based or center-based pre-K or home-based child care.
The Governor called for a special session to work out these differences. After much ado, the Governor lost his battle for universal pre-K, and ultimately settled on a $17 billion education funding bill that increased funding for early learning scholarships by roughly $48 million. It also increased funding for two other state funding streams that support pre-K: $10 million for Head Start and $30 million for the School Readiness Program, which directly funds school districts to prepare children for kindergarten.
This is a historic investment in early education for the state of Minnesota, but it still isn’t enough money to provide all 4-year-olds in the state with high-quality pre-K. Currently, it’s unclear how many children will be covered by the scholarships program at the new funding level because the education commissioner may change the $5,000 cap. The cap is one of the largest shortcomings of the program because $5,000 does not cover the full cost of attendance at the majority of high-quality early learning programs. The average cost of center-based full-day care for a 4-year-old is over $10,800 in Minnesota, and this number is taking into account centers of varying quality. The $5,000 cap can end up significantly limiting pre-K options for the highest-need families who cannot supplement the cost of care.
Raising the cap to more accurately reflect the cost of high-quality early education programs is essential to ensuring that children fully benefit from this program, but with limited funding it’s important to remember that there is a tradeoff-- raising the cap means less children would likely be served.
Last month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill allocating $130 million to school districts to serve eligible 4-year-olds in “high-quality” pre-K programs. However, the level of quality might be up for debate. According to NIEER’s preschool yearbook, Texas currently serves just over 50 percent of 4-year-olds in public pre-K, which is more than most states in the country. Tuition-free pre-K is available to children from low-income, homeless, foster,military families, and dual language learners (DLLs). While Texas is doing a relatively good job on access, the state has a long way to go when it comes to quality.
As depicted below, Texas’s pre-K program meets only two of NIEER’s ten quality benchmarks.
In order for children to fully benefit from pre-K, they need to be enrolled in high-quality programs, and the legislation passed last month ties pre-K funding to a host of quality indicators-- although only a few match with NIEER’s quality benchmarks.
In the past, there was no strict staff-child ratio in Texas pre-K programs, let alone the 1:10 ratio recommended by NIEER and other early education experts. The new legislation says that programs must “attempt to maintain” an average ratio of one teacher or paraprofessional to 11 students. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services will be conducting a study on appropriate class size and ratio in pre-K classrooms and is required to produce a report by September 2016. The legislation doesn’t specify though that the findings of this report would lead to future changes.
The new legislation also requires districts to report a host of new information to the state. Pre-K programs will have to start disclosing ratios, curricula, assessment results (if used), and reading proficiency rates. To be eligible for the new funding, pre-K programs will be required to use curricula that are aligned with the state pre-K guidelines. The law also specifically states that pre-K programs cannot use “national curriculum standards developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative.” (Since the Common Core is not a curriculum and the standards do not extend to pre-K anyway, this shouldn’t be a problem). Programs must also develop and implement family engagement strategies that are based on empirical research and demonstrate both short- and long-term outcomes.
One quality indicator that isn’t addressed by NIEER is length of program day and year. Texas’ bill is intended to serve children in half-day programs, although districts with access to additional local, state, or federal funds can offer full-day programs. Some early education advocates in the state legislature called for funding for full-day pre-K, but their bill didn’t make it very far in the legislature. This is unfortunate since full-day enrollment is usually associated with more significant child outcomes.
With limited funding on the table, Texas policymakers were smart to focus on improving the quality of existing pre-K programs instead of increasing enrollment. The state still has a long way to go on that front though. For more information on the quality of Texas pre-K, check out the comprehensive report that Robert C. Pianta and Catherine Wolcott from University of Virginia released last fall."