In the News: The State of Preschool

April 29, 2011

The results of NIEER’s annual survey of state-funded preschool, The State of Preschool 2010: State Preschool Yearbook, were released this week in Washington, DC. At the release, NIEER Co-Director Steve Barnett noted that the data showed that, nationally speaking, the recession is continuing to negatively impact state-funded pre-K programs. “Overall, state cuts to preschool funding transformed the recession into a depression for many young children,” he said. Joining Barnett at the release were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said “We can’t win the future by cheating children at the starting line,” and Pre-K Now’s Marci Young, who noted that the damage done to state pre-K after cuts due to the recession strengthens the case that preschool education should be included in the upcoming re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

From left to right: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, NIEER Co-Director Steve Barnett, and Pre-K Now Project Director Marci Young

Following the release, Steve Barnett and findings from The State of Preschool 2010: State Preschool Yearbook were featured in segments on both CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. “We should care about the drop in state investments in pre-K because pre-K can set the foundation for success. If we don’t invest we have high rates of failure,” Barnett told NBC’s Tom Costello. Speaking with CBS News national correspondent Jim Axelrod about the impacts of two years of New Jersey’s high-quality pre-K, Barnett said “The evidence is really clear, preschool makes a big difference. By itself it can cut school failure in half.”

Findings from the Yearbook were also featured in national newspapers, including The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, as well as in numerous state and local papers. Let us know where you’ve seen the Yearbook featured!

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER


Latest Yearbook Findings: A Wake-Up Call?

April 26, 2011

When NIEER’s research team analyzed the 2009–2010 data for this year’s State Preschool Yearbook, it was not without some trepidation. News coming from the states has been anything but encouraging and we knew the previous year’s data had not captured the full impact of the recession. In many respects, the 2009-2010 data does present a fuller appreciation of the economic stresses affecting the states. For the first time since we began tracking state pre-K, total spending for the country fell in real (inflation adjusted) dollars. So did per-child spending, which now sits $700 below what states, on average, spent in the 2001–2002 school year.

Beyond the national averages, however, there’s a very mixed picture — some of it good, some bad and some downright ugly. First, the good: Enrollment increased nationally with nearly 1.3 million children attending state-funded preschool education. While the enrollment increase was not large, it does stand as testimony to the value many state leaders grappling with tough economies place on preschool education. Alaska and Rhode Island started programs for the first time – the first new states to provide pre-K in many years.

But there was plenty of bad news. After adjusting for inflation, state funding per child declined in 19 of 40 states with programs. Many of these were relatively large states. Nine state (Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Carolina) cut per-child spending by more than 10 percent. While four states (Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia) improved on NIEER’s Quality Standards Checklist, two states (Ohio and Nebraska) lost ground. And, despite increased enrollment at age 4, enrollment of 3-year-olds decreased across the country with nine states (Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington) cutting enrollment at age 3 by 10 percent or more.

In talking with members of the early education community as we prepared to release the report, it sounded like more bad news is in the offing in states like North Carolina, New York, and Illinois. These are states that have made good progress in state pre-K in recent years – progress which is now being threatened by the proposed cuts and changes in governance. Barbara Bowman, a NIEER scientific advisory board member who runs Chicago’s pre-K program, describes the funding situation in Illinois as “dire” and points out that if the federal stimulus money she used this year to support public pre-K in Chicago isn’t replaced she will have to cut the number of kids they serve next year.

This state of affairs is not lost on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who joined me in Washington to present the yearbook findings. Duncan remarked that educational inequality is the civil rights issue of our time and increased access to quality pre-K and other early learning opportunities is the way to begin addressing disparities.

— Steve Barnett
Co-director, NIEER


An Early Start to Financial Education

April 15, 2011

This week the PNC Grow Up Great program marked its seventh anniversary. The program was launched by the PNC Financial Services Group in 2004 as a 10-year, $100 million school readiness program to help prepare at-risk children for school and life.

Since the program’s inception, more than 1 million children have been served by the more than $30 million in grants and programs that have assisted numerous early childhood education centers and other non-profit organizations.  PNC employees have volunteered more than 176,000 hours at early education programs and donated more than 260,000 items to enhance early childhood classrooms.  With expert early education partners like the Fred Rogers Company and Sesame Workshop, the program has created and distributed new resources to support parents and educators in their efforts to prepare children for kindergarten.

As we continue to look for ways to expand the programming offered through Grow Up Great, our attention was caught by research that shows that very young children are capable of understanding basic financial concepts.   At the same time parents and caregivers report that they want to address financial matters with their children, but feel they lack the tools and resources to do so. The subject seemed relevant given a heightened awareness of the need for financial education before adulthood and the decrease in public funding for such programs.  Working with our partners at Sesame Workshop, we felt that we were uniquely positioned to address this topic as part of the Grow Up Great program.

On Wednesday, PNC announced a new financial education initiative.  The $12 million initiative features a new multimedia education kit created by Sesame Workshop.  Entitled For Me, for You, for Later: First Steps to Spending, Sharing and Saving, the bilingual kits feature an original Sesame DVD, a parent/caregiver guide, and activity book.  PNC produced 1 million kits that will be distributed for free.  The kits are available at PNC branches and online at pncgrowupgreat.com or sesamestreet.org/save.  An educator’s guide and additional materials are also available on-line.   The initiative also includes $5 million in grants for non-profits to provide financial education based on the materials Sesame Workshop created.  PNC will also conduct a public awareness campaign throughout the spring and summer to highlight financial basics and the availability of the new materials.

We feel this new initiative is an important addition to the Grow Up Great program.   As we look over the last seven years at all of the meaningful work that has been done to help prepare children for school, we are confident that this new initiative will not only prepare them for school, but also for life.

Sally McCrady

Program Manager, Grow Up Great


More Great Work from John Merrow

April 8, 2011

This week we saw on PBS Newshour an important installment in John Merrow’s continuing and exemplary pursuit of answers to what ails education in this country. Learning Matters, the nonprofit production company he founded traveled to Chicago where they visited homes with preschool-age children and visited an outstanding Educare program that serves kids from infancy to 5 years old. Along the way, Merrow interviewed Barbara Bowman who runs Chicago’s public pre-K program, once headed up the Erikson Institute, and is a NIEER Scientific Advisory Board. He also interviewed Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and Maria Whelan, president of Illinois Action for Children.

Bowman discusses the enormous costs of school failure and Merrow illustrates by cutting to a scene of young men entering a prison cell block. The cost of keeping them there? — $30,000 per year. Rauner says Educare spends about $19,000 per year per child, pointing out the potential return on that investment. She pointed to research showing that at-risk kids who attended the program for five years (at $95,000 per child) entered kindergarten as ready to learn as their middle-income peers.

There are 90,000 children in Chicago who need high-quality early education but the Educare Program Merrow visited serves only 149. Bowman describes to Merrow the dire budgetary straits in which Chicago’s much larger pre-K program finds itself. It serves 24,000 kids two and a half hours per day. When you add in all the kids in Chicago who attend Head Start and other public pre-K programs, the total comes to 37,000 kids served. In other words, says Merrow, Chicago spends about $5,000 per child on preschool for 40 percent of its neediest kids and nothing on the rest.

This picture could grow worse next year, says Bowman. Chicago used federal stimulus funds for pre-K and if that money isn’t replaced she’ll have to cut the number of children served by public pre-K even more. Merrow asks Whelan about making difficult choices in this economic environment, about spreading less funding over more kids or ignoring the needs of the many in order to serve the few. You will find her answer, and the analogy she uses, interesting. You can view the segment here: http://learningmatters.tv/blog/on-pbs-newshour/closing-the-vocabulary-gap-in-chicago-preschoools/5782/.   American’s should not allow themselves to be forced into a “Sophie’s choice” because of all the other things that are given priority–corporate welfare, foreign wars, and tax cuts for the wealthy among them.

Where would Merrow find the money for pre-K? He presents a bold answer in his blog Taking Note. He proposes to eliminate 12th grade, and then suggests the even more unthinkable—eliminate subsidies for corn production.  I take it his point is that people will have to come up with new ideas and fight tough political battles to wrest money for early childhood investments from powerful entrenched interests.  Stay tuned for NIEER’s 2010 Preschool Yearbook to be released later this month where we will reveal which states have chosen to support new investments in children despite tough times and which have chosen to disinvest in young children.

Steve Barnett

Co-director, NIEER


Head Start’s Improved Eligibility Process is a Positive Change, but Doesn’t Address the Root Problem—For Many American Families Quality Early Education is Out of Reach

April 1, 2011

It comes as welcome news that the Office of Head Start proposes more stringent rules for enrollment eligibility and data keeping in the program. (See the Federal Register at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-03-18/pdf/2011-6326.pdf.)  Although the extent of the problem is unknown, in some locales parents have been able to enroll their children in Head Start despite the fact that they are not income eligible. This may deny access to children who do meet the guidelines and creates enmity among parents who are not willing to break the rules.  Yet, tougher enforcement of eligibility rules does not get to the root of the real problem.

Many American families with incomes too high to qualify for Head Start or state-funded pre-K simply can’t afford a good preschool education for their children.  Unless they live in Oklahoma or one a of a handful of other places that offer pre-K to everyone regardless of income or has a relatively high income cutoff for eligibility, families will continue to be frustrated by their inability to provide their children with a quality early education no matter how hard they work.  And no matter how tough the screening, parents will continue to feel pressure to misrepresent their finances and manipulate their circumstances at enrollment to gain access to a good early education.

NIEER encountered one such example last August when a young single mom from the Southwestern United States shared her story of frustration. Her son, whom we’ll call Cam, was looking forward to attending preschool. His mom had tentatively enrolled him in the local Head Start program and together they purchased a new back pack for him. But preschool wasn’t in the cards for Cam. By the time Head Start informed Cam’s mom that her income was too high, other pre-K programs in the area were already full. Cam, now 4, remains at home while mom works. She is frustrated not only at the lack of pre-K programs for Cam, but also because, in her view, the rewards of public pre-K go first to those who game the system.

Q: Why was Cam denied enrollment in the program?

A: Because they said I make too much money and I didn’t get enough points in their enrollment system. I make $37,000 a year and I got 50 points — 25 for being a single parent and 25 for having a child at home with no caregiver. The other possible points were for homelessness, foster care, learning disability, inability to speak English, and death of a parent.

Q: That seems straightforward enough. Why are you frustrated?

A: Because I am pretty sure other people lie about their income to get their kids in school. In fact I know that they do. Besides that why should income define what children deserve in education?

Q: What makes you think that?

A: I have spoken with other women in the community whose kids were being turned away because of income and they were told to lie about their income. And while we were registering Cam, my father overheard a young lady being told to lie about her income. I also know of a couple that owns their own business and got their children in.

Q: Did you point this out?

A: I did and I asked them if they expect me to quit my job to get Cam into school. I also confronted the school on the screening process of parents. They said they do not verify check stubs so anyone can make a few changes to get their kids in. I then proceeded to ask them, “Well if I come back next week with an altered check stub my son will get in?” I wanted to point out the flaws in the program criteria.

Q: Did anyone recommend other programs?

A: Yes. There is a program 20 miles away. I work a lot and that would never work out for us. There was another program that would cost $347 a month and I can’t afford it. The program was also started for school teachers so that their kids get in first and then the other children. So even if I got a second job to pay for schooling for my son, he is not guaranteed to be accepted.

Q: How is Cam doing?

A: He got really upset when we got the denial and he still gets excited when he sees a school bus drive by. My dad stays home and watches him every day while I work. We bought books on preschool learning at Sam’s Club and my dad is teaching him from them. He turned 4 in November and is really ready to go to school.


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