Existing Pre-K Programs Are Struggling in the States

As we contemplate the possibly bright future of pre-K laid out in Obama’s state of the union address this year, in which the feds work together “with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” along comes a sobering glimpse of what public preschool looks like now. It’s not quite as rosy.

Rather than charting progress toward getting all four-year-olds ready for kindergarten, the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual surveyof programs, just issued last week, shows a system in disrepair—or perhaps even retreat. Even as recognition of the benefits of preschool for four-year-olds has grown, the actual implementation of it has stalled—and, in places, lost ground. Meanwhile state funding for pre-K has gone down by more than half a billion dollars in the last year, according to NIEER. In 2012, state spending per child fell to well below what it was ten years ago.

The backsliding, which can be blamed in great part on the recession, affects both the number of kids in public pre-K and the quality of education they get while there. “Even though the economies are bouncing back, you’re seeing state legislatures and governors are still slow to replace and or grow early learning programs,” says Kris Perry, executive director of the DC-based advocacy group the First Five Years Fund. The lag poses a serious threat to young kids, according to Perry. “It’s like when you defer maintenance on your home. You can put a bucket under the leak and survive another winter. But at some point, you’re going to jeopardize the health and safety of the children in your home. That’s what’s happening with pre-K.”

Consider Georgia, one of two states, along with Oklahoma, that Obama hailed as models when he unveiled his national pre-K plan. Despite the impressive reach and quality of its program, Georgia has hit a major financing hiccup. The state funds pre-K entirely through the state lottery, which also pays for the state’s college scholarship program. Though the lottery was thought to be a fairly steady funding source, in recent years its revenue began to dwindle even as tuition costs continued to rise, leaving less money for pre-K. 

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