(PART 2 OF 2-PART SERIES)
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.