Preschool for Y’All: How Did Early Education Become a Southern Goal?

November 30, 2012


What explains this focus on early learning in Southern states? As seen in our prior post on this topic, early childhood education is a priority in much of the South. Early education may have been on policymakers’ radars in the South longer than in other states. In 1988, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) issued its report Goals for Education: Challenge 2000, which set educational goals for the year 2000. Among other goals, the report called for “increasing the percentage of ‘at risk’ children served by pre-school and kindergarten programs to 100 percent” as well as screening all children using a readiness assessment before first grade. These goals are particularly remarkable considering that in 1988, enrollment of 4-year-olds nationwide in any preschool program, including private ones, was only at about 50 percent. State-funded programs were hardly the norm—when SREB issued the report, only 13 states had any kind of state-funded pre-K and most were pilot programs, five of them in the South.

Early education also received a boost in 1989 when President George H. W. Bush and the nation’s governors, led by then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton convened in Charlottesville, Virginia to focus a national education agenda. The meeting gave rise to the National Education Goals Panel, whose Goal One asserted that “by the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn” and called for the availability of preschool. When President Clinton took office in 1993, he appointed former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley, another advocate for early education, as Secretary of Education. By the early 1990s, Southern advocates were making the case for early education at the regional and national level. Over the years, prominent pre-K advocates in the region have included Lloyd Jackson in West Virginia, David Lawrence in Florida, and Cecil Picard in Louisiana.

The focus on early learning in the South may be a result of understanding the challenges faced by many children in that region. Census data maps show that in 14 of these 16 states,* the poverty rate for children under age 5 exceeds 20 percent. A 2010 report from the Southern Education Foundation, Pre-Kindergarten in the South: Preserving the Region’s Comparative Advantage, stressed the importance of early education specifically on these grounds:

“A New Diverse Majority, the bulk of Southern public school students are low income and/or people of color, in whose education the region has historically underinvested….[A]lthough it may be counterintuitive to some, it is in tough economic times that little children especially need public support to keep striving for excellence and to develop necessary resilience in the face of adversity.”

As the demographic landscape of the South continues to change, a 2007 SREB report notes that poverty is not the only factor threatening kids’ school readiness:

 “Nearly all SREB states now provide sufficient access to prekindergarten to serve children in poverty. Yet, all SREB states have growing percentages of children from additional low-income or English-as-a-second-language families who need early care and educational services to be ready for school. Few SREB states provide sufficient prekindergarten access and services for all children from these families.”

A quick look at the Nation’s Report Card from National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for math and reading also shows that students in most Southern states perform below the national average on many measures. In an increasingly competitive environment, economically and educationally, early education is a strategy to start early to combat low scores in the region.

Preschool in the South has been a long time coming, but it has resulted in high enrollments and high-quality publicly-funded programs, though not always together. While standardized test scores point to the need for a continued focus on education in all grades, early education is an important stepping stone to improving education in the South. Can the lessons of the South be applied nationwide to strengthen early learning and start kids on the right track?

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, NIEER

 * The District of Columbia is also included in the Census definition of the South, though their enrollment figures are not included here as it would be inconsistent to compare a city among states. However, the District of Columbia has also shown a substantial commitment to early childhood education and provides publicly-funded pre-K to the majority of its 3- and 4-year-olds in a variety of settings.

Preschool for Y’All: The Rise of Early Education in the South

November 1, 2012


As our State of Preschool 2011 report made clear, state-funded pre-K nationwide has fallen victim to tight budgets. As rises in enrollment outstripped funding increases, per-child spending was dragged down. We’ve also seen that disparities in quality, access, and resources have been exacerbated over the last decade, as some states prioritized early education during budget crises while others cut spending. A quick look at regional trends finds one important point: early childhood education is a priority down South.

The South, as defined by the Census Bureau, comprises 16 states* — Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. (These states are further subdivided into three smaller regions, as grouped here.) A quick look at our Access map below, demonstrating the percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in each state’s state-funded pre-K program, shows that some of the highest access states are in the South. In fact, 10 of the top 15 states for 4-year-olds are in this region.

Figure 1: Percent of 4-Year-Olds Served in State Pre-K

Mississippi is the only state in the South without a state-funded pre-K program. Otherwise, the South has prioritized access to state-funded pre-K, as evidenced by data such as:

  • All-age pre-K enrollment in this region is more than 700,000 children. This is 54 percent of children enrolled nationwide, though these states account for only one-third of the total U.S. population.
  • Most states in this region maintain impressively high enrollment levels, including Florida with the highest enrollment percent in the nation for 4-year-olds at 76 percent.
  • Since the 2001-2002 school year, the percent of 4-year-olds in the Southern region has consistently, and significantly, outpaced the 4-year-old enrollment rate across all 50 states, as can be seen below.

Percent of 4-year-olds Enrolled

A large proportion of both Southern and national enrollment growth was the implementation of Florida’s Universal Prekindergarten Program in the 2005-2006 year, which enrolled more than 100,000 4-year-olds in its first year alone and has continued growing. Enrollment of 4-year-olds has increased nationwide in the last decade due in part to increased advocacy efforts at the state and national levels as well as a growing body of research proving the effectiveness of pre-K. However, the impact of these efforts can be seen even more clearly in the South, where enrollment has increased by a staggering 23 percentage points during the past decade, compared to only 14 percentage points nationwide.

Most Southern states also excel in terms of our Quality Standards Benchmarks.

  • Only five states nationwide meet all 10 of these, and three of them are in the South—Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. (One of Louisiana’s three state programs also meets all 10).
  • Another nine Southern states meet eight or nine benchmarks, an exceptional track record for one region.
  • However, the South also has two of the states with the lowest quality standards—Florida meets three and Texas meets four, which is particularly problematic considering their extremely high enrollment levels.

(Click on the Google Motion Chart image below to explore longitudinal changes in access, enrollment, and quality standards in the Southern region.)

2011 Yearbook Interactive Data - Southern States

Funding per child in the South declined in eight states since the 2001-2002 school year, though both Arkansas and Louisiana posted impressive increases in per-child funding in that time. Only six of these states (Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) met NIEER’s estimate for the per-child spending needed to meet all quality standards benchmarks as well as pay pre-K teachers a salary on par with kindergarten teachers.

Preschool has come a long way in the South, even serving as a national model in many ways, and advocates for children must be vigilant to ensure it serves those children who need it. In our national press release for the Yearbook, we expressed concern than political and financial conditions in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas could threaten program progress. (Individual state releases with more information can be found here). Given these threats to programs, it is important to remember this question posted by the Southern Education Foundation in 2010: “This is the South’s challenge and its moment of truth: Do we sustain the one area of public education needed by little children that is successful? Or shall we take steps to reduce or eliminate the best way we have to help little children become ready for success in education for years to come?”

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, NIEER

* The District of Columbia is also included in the Census definition of the South, though their enrollment figures are not included here as it would be inconsistent to compare a city among states. However, the District of Columbia has also shown a substantial commitment to early childhood education and provides publicly-funded pre-K to the majority of its 3- and 4-year-olds in a variety of settings.

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