State-Funded Preschool in America in a “State of Emergency”

April 29, 2013

YB 2012 press conference 4.29.13Today NIEER released its most recent edition of The State of Preschool 2012: State Preschool Yearbook at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This Yearbook marks a decade of data collection, from the 2001-2002 to 2011-2012 school years, tracking the changes in state-funded pre-K policies during some difficult financial times. Joining NIEER at the release were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius; President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten; Chairman Emeritus of the Vanguard Group Jack Brennan; and Celia Ayala, CEO of Los Angeles Universal Preschool.

This year’s findings were the most sobering since NIEER started collecting data. Total state-funding fell by nearly half a billion dollars from the previous year, an unprecedented drop. This translated to a $442 decrease in per-child funding, down to $3,841. Enrollment growth basically stagnated – while 10,000 more kids were enrolled in the 2011-2012 school year, population also grew. This translates to only 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds, the same as in the previous year.

As NIEER’s Director Steve Barnett noted in his remarks, “the 2012 cutbacks in quality standards were directly related to shortfalls in state funding.” Quality supports were particularly hard hit by the dramatic cuts. While three programs met a new quality standards benchmark – California for early learning standards, Ohio for site visits, and Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts for lead teacher degree – seven programs lost a total of nine benchmarks. We were particularly concerned that five of these losses were related to site visits for monitoring program quality – evidence indicates that only high-quality pre-K programs significantly benefit children’s learning and development, and visiting sites to gauge quality helps ensure programs are serving children’s needs. Quality is of the utmost importance in early education programs, as noted by LAUP CEO Celia Ayala whose experience as a former practitioner informs her work in the field.

The panel conversation at the National Press Club covered not only this new data on state pre-K in recent years but also what the field looks like going forward, including the implications of President Obama’s plan for Preschool for All in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal. The diversity of today’s panel members makes clear that the importance of high-quality pre-K and its lasting benefits are well-understood in our nation’s capital, in the classroom, and in the boardroom. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius noted that as a former governor, she would have welcomed federal investment in early education, while Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stressed the importance of collaboration among agencies and levels of government to best serve kids.  He called for a “preschool movement” in America to support the president’s plan

Ensuring children have access to high-quality pre-K isn’t just an issue for the short-term. A significant body of research finds that the benefits of pre-K far outweigh the cost. Good preschool education provides children with a stronger foundation for lifelong success–reducing school failure, raising test scores, and increasing educational attainment. Jack Brennan of the Vanguard Group presented the business case for early childhood education, noting that businesses are the future beneficiaries of the skills that children gain in pre-K. State budgets are only now recovering from the Great Recession and, as Randi Weingarten of AFT noted, now is the time to make sure high-quality pre-K is a top priority of legislators.

Video of the full release event is available on C-SPAN’s web site and the conversation is ongoing on Twitter. NIEER will also be continuing to spread the word of this report at a Capitol Hill Briefing tomorrow, co-sponsored with First Focus.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


Pre-K and Tobacco, Perfect Together?

April 15, 2013

Steve BarnettHigh-quality pre-K for all funded by a tobacco tax is a winning combination. It makes perfect sense from both economic and political perspectives. Let’s start with the economic perspective. Economics is primarily concerned with two issues, efficiency and equity (fairness). The primary economic argument against higher taxes is that they lead people to make less optimal choices, perhaps even discouraging socially beneficial activities that we otherwise want to encourage. Yet, smoking is an activity that we actually want to discourage.  It imposes high social costs, and it is an addiction that most smokers acquired before adulthood, would prefer not to have acquired, and would like to quit. A tobacco tax will reduce the number of new smokers and the number of cigarettes consumed by those who already smoke.

Big tobacco (Altria, Reynolds American, Lorillard, and Imperial Tobacco have 95 percent of the U.S. market) can be expected to object that a tobacco tax is unfair because it hits low-income Americans hardest. Their concern for the plight of the poor would be touching if they evinced any concern that their products unfairly increase disease and death among low-income Americans and their children (from secondhand smoke). A tobacco tax will reduce smoking and improve health most for the lowest income Americans because their smoking behavior is more price sensitive than that of higher income smokers.  To this we can add that high-quality pre-K produces its greatest benefits for children from lower-income families, though all children will benefit.

Another objection opponents have already raised to the tobacco tax is that because it will reduce smoking the revenue generated will decline over time. Thus, they say it is not suitable as a permanent funding source for pre-K. Apparently, they have not read the President’s plan or his budget.  The President does not propose perpetual federal funding, and the funding formula decreases the federal match gradually over time.  In this respect, a tobacco tax is a perfect match for the pre-K proposal.

Turning to the political perspective, one advantage of this proposal is that the financing mechanism makes no new enemies. Cigarette makers will oppose pre-K for all no matter how it is funded. Multiple studies find that quality pre-K reduces the likelihood that people take up smoking. From the industry perspective it is a tobacco control program, and big tobacco relentlessly works to erode public funding for such programs. At the same time, the proposal will enlist another set of allies–those committed to reducing tobacco addiction and the disease and death it causes. They will have two reasons to support the pre-K proposal because both quality pre-K and the tax will reduce smoking.

In the current political environment, some may oppose the proposal because they oppose any tax increase at all.  For those truly committed to limited government and deficit reduction, I have a modest suggestion. Cut welfare for agribusiness, aka farm subsidies, which are inefficient and unfair. Farm subsidies cost taxpayers $10 to $15 billion annually, even though farm income reached all time highs in the last two years. Let the free market operate in agriculture, and split the savings 50-50 between deficit reduction and the President’s pre-K proposal (which, by the way, will eventually start contributing to deficit reduction on its own).  Anyone who says they favor less government intrusion into the market and smaller deficits, but is unwilling to cut farm subsidies, doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Returning to the tobacco tax, it will, without a doubt, require a fight. Big tobacco will use direct lobbying, publicity campaigns, AstroTurf (artificial grassroots front groups), and alliances with think tanks and membership organizations.   They can be expected to try to convince unions to oppose the tax because it is regressive and police organizations to oppose it because it will increase illegal sales (pay no attention to who would have to collude in supplying tobacco products to the underground economy).

Supporters of the proposal should be prepared to build a coalition with anti-tobacco groups as well as businesses that will benefit from lower health care costs and more productive future employees, unions with members who will benefit from better health and access to high-quality pre-K, advocates for lower income children and their families including minorities who have the least access to high-quality pre-K. They might even organize consumer and investor boycotts of tobacco companies who oppose the plan. Altria, which has by far the largest market share for cigarettes, also has economic stakes in beer and wine, allowing even nonsmokers to participate in an effective consumer boycott. Big tobacco has lost this battle before. California provides a battle plan that, when suitably tweaked for a national campaign, can produce another win for pre-K.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “‘Sin Tax’ for Pre-Schoolers” by Fawn Johnson.


(Almost) Everything You Wanted to Know about Pre-K in the Federal Budget

April 12, 2013

Since President Obama announced his goal of quality early education for 4-year-olds in his State of the Union address, the education world has been buzzing for more information. Details provided earlier this month indicated that the president’s plan would call for funding the program through an increase in the tobacco tax from $1.01 per pack to $1.95. The release of the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014 provides significantly more insight into the administration’s Preschool for All initiative.

The Department of Education budget clarifies that the proposal is for a federal-state partnership to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool with added incentives to expand these programs to reach children from all income levels.  The plan is part of a larger approach to expanding and sustaining middle-class opportunity. Education Department documents laid out key elements of the Preschool for All proposal; many are similar from the bills introduced in both the House and Senate since the State of the Union, including:

  • high staff qualifications, including a BA degree for teachers;
  • professional development for teachers and staff;
  • low staff-child ratios and small class sizes;
  • a full-day program;
  • developmentally appropriate, evidence-based curricula aligned with state early learning standards;
  • salaries comparable to those in K-12 education;
  • on-going program evaluation to ensure continuous improvement; and
  • on-site comprehensive services for children.

The Department of Education is requesting $75 billion over 10 years in budget authority for this plan with $1.3 billion requested for FY 2014.  This is mandatory federal spending that is not dependent on an annual or periodic appropriation bill.

State funding allocations would be based on the number of 4-year-olds in families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Table 1, based on the Education Department’s School Readiness budget justification, shows how state and federal shares vary over time for both regular and reduced rate states.  The “regular” rate applies to states not yet serving half of the children below 200 percent of poverty; the “reduced” rate incentivizes pre-K for all children when at least half the children above 200 percent FPL are served.

Table 1.  State/Federal Share of Pre-K Program at Regular and Reduced Rates

Program Year

Regular Rate

Reduced Rate

State Share

Federal Share

State Share

Federal Share

Year 1

9%

91%

5%

95%

Year 2

9%

91%

5%

95%

Year 3

17%

83%

9%

91%

Year 4

23%

77%

17%

83%

Year 5

29%

71%

23%

77%

Year 6

33%

67%

29%

71%

Year 7

43%

57%

33%

67%

Year 8

50%

50%

43%

57%

Year 9

60%

40%

50%

50%

Year 10

75%

25%

71%

29%

The budget also requested $750 million in discretionary funds for FY 2014 for Preschool Development Grants. These funds would provide competitive grants to states “most willing to commit to creating or expanding a high-quality preschool system that can serve all of their 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.” At an Education Department press conference on Wednesday, these grants were characterized as helping states address systemic issues in preparation for expanding preschool, which would include building facilities and workforce development. Eligible states would include “low capacity” states with small or non-existent state-funded pre-K programs as well as states with “more robust” programs looking to support quality improvement and expand access.

How many 4-year-olds children stand to benefit from the president’s plan? Back of the envelope calculations based on data from the ECLS-B study indicate that as many as 1.67 million 4-year-olds who live below 200 percent FPL could benefit because they do not now have access to a quality pre-K program (based on the numbers who attend no program or a program that is not high quality). This includes 365,000 African-American children and 565,000 Hispanic children. Rather than a “federal takeover” of early education as feared by some, the president’s plan would build on state efforts that work and improve those that fall short.  With its added incentives to offer quality preschool for all, this plan could increase the number of children attending high-quality pre-K programs at age 4 from less than 1 million to around 4 million nationally.

The federal budget also makes provision for younger children.  The Department of Health and Human Services budget has $1.4 billion in new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships; an additional $200 million to support high-quality child care; and $15 billion over 10 years to support home-visiting programs.

At the state level, a so-called “sin tax,” such as the proposed tobacco tax, is not an uncommon way to fund programs for children. NIEER has written before about the pros and cons of this approach as well as a more comprehensive look at various state funding structures for early education. In fact, tobacco taxes fund early education through  First Five California and First Things First in Arizona while Kansas and Maine both report using tobacco settlement funds for various components of early childhood education.

children in sandbox

Several other noteworthy initiatives were included in the Education Department’s budget, as noted by Education Week:

  • $300 million for Promise Neighborhoods;
  • $112 million to help schools develop emergency plans, collect school safety data, and improve school climate;
  • $1 billion for a Race to the Top competition focusing on improving student outcomes in college without increasing tuition; and
  •  $215 million for competitive School Improvement Grant program focused on school turnarounds and district capacity.

It’s heartening to see early childhood education at the top of the agenda for new investments in education. The proposed federal investment in pre-K together with the other proposed measures can increase the number of children ready for the early elementary grades, expanding the opportunity for all children to achieve long-term academic, social and economic success.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER


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