Federal Investment Critical as Pre-K Access Gap Grows

Earlier this month, President Obama called for a $75 billion investment in pre-K education over 10 years as part of his fiscal year 2014 budget. This investment would go a long way toward shrinking the preschool access gap, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP).

The foundation for our children’s academic success starts early, when their brains are rapidly forming and are able to soak up cognitive and social skills. That’s why early childhood education is critical to long-term academic achievement and to bridging the gulfs in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged kids before they even start.

“The president’s new preschool and early childhood plan makes a bold investment in our country’s children,” said CAP President Neera Tanden. “This investment won’t add a dime to the deficit and it will be fully paid for by a tax on sales of cigarettes and other harmful tobacco products… Decades of research demonstrate that preschool is absolutely critical for building lifelong skills, and that the returns from early childhood investments dwarf the costs.”

Over the past couple of years, states across the country have made their own investments in early education programs for young children, but a CAP interactive map shows that a significant preschool gap persists. Even in Vermont – the state with the highest number of 3- and 4-year-old children enrolled in state-funded early education programs — less than half of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool. And there are 11 states with no state-funded preschool program at all: Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, and Mississippi, where a state-funded preschool bill awaits the governor’s signature.

This gap is also highlighted in the 2012 State of Preschool survey, released on Monday by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), and tracks the marked decline in state funding for pre-K education. Overall, funding decreased by over half a billion dollars in 2011-2012, the largest one year drop ever when adjusted for inflation.

Despite the funding setbacks, the report finds that there is still much to celebrate about state-funded pre-K. These programs play an important role in ensuring that all children, regardless of income, enter kindergarten ready to learn, but greater access is needed for states to achieve this goal. Over the past decade, enrollment in these programs has increased and some states have managed to sustain quality standards in the midst of budget cuts.

Source: National Institute for Early Education Research

Still, as Kris Perry executive director of the First Five Years Fund points out, a failure to turn the funding around will only jeopardize this progress.

“The NIEER report confirms that while Republican and Democratic-led states alike have come up with innovative and high-quality early childhood solutions that work, funding shortfalls have made it made it much more difficult for state and local leaders to continue their innovative early learning efforts to improve both access and quality,” Perry said.

Protecting and building on these successes is the reason President Obama placed quality, pre-K education at the top of the national agenda. The funding from the Obama budget would provide access by allowing states to establish or expand early education programs to many more children.

Under the president’s plan, states will be eligible to receive new federal dollars in return for investing their own dollars. And while the federal government will ensure that state programs meet high quality standards, states will continue to run their own programs.

This state-federal partnership would cover all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. The federal resources would also free up state dollars to reach 3-year-olds and children from higher-income families and to provide full-day kindergarten.

High quality early childhood education represents one of the best investments our country can make, and the National Education Association believes it’s a common sense investment we can’t afford to pass up.

“Early childhood education and full-day kindergarten are fundamental to long-term student success. The availability of quality early childhood education shouldn’t be determined by how much money a child’s parents make,” says NEA President DennisVan Roekel. “The road to economic prosperity and helping those aspiring to join the middle class runs directly through our nation’s public schools and we must all do more to ensure that all our students have access to full-day kindergarten and great public schools.”