From the ground up
Proponents say early education is crucial, but new funding is scarce
Posted on 8.4.10
Education reform often focuses on results: More college graduates, increased high school graduation rates, reduced achievement gaps on high-stakes tests.
But it may be difficult to fix struggling elementary, middle and high schools without first investing in a child’s earliest years. Many of the country’s educational leaders agree that high-quality preschool programs pay off, and research shows those programs can lead to higher test scores, higher graduation rates and higher salaries down the line. Those would seem to be powerful incentives for states to improve the preschool services. But in the flood of new federal education dollars, preschool programs have come up mostly dry, making it hard for states to keep reform efforts afloat.
Still, Ohio’s leaders are forging ahead. The state already has a wide variety of programs aimed at helping its youngest children, from public preschool to mental health screening. The problem: those programs exist independently across different state departments. A family may sign up for a home-visiting program, for example, but never learn about child-care opportunities in their area.
As a result, state officials are working to coordinate the crazy-quilt of existing early childhood services under the Department of Education. They believe the services should be housed there because all parts of a young child’s life—physical, emotional and academic—contribute to school readiness, says Alicia Leatherman, director of Ohio’s Center for Students, Families and Communities.
“If we have strong early childhood supports and early childhood systems, we know that it can result in later academic success,” Leatherman says.
No federal help
But the absence of new funding doesn’t bode well for efforts to improve early education because some of the most historically successful preschool programs have hefty price tags. Take the High/Scope Perry Preschool study, for example. Perry Preschool, which served a small group of at-risk minority students in Michigan in the early 1960s, kept student-teacher ratios small and required teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Teachers also engaged families through weekly home visits. Forty years later, High/Scope found that participants earned higher salaries and had a lower rate of arrest compared to the control group of students, who were not chosen. The results were impressive, and so was the cost. Adjusted for inflation, the two-year program would have cost more then $15,000 per child in 2000.
Despite the political attention early education has received and the waterfall of federal stimulus funds that flowed into school coffers this year, increases for early education have been relatively minor. Of the $100 billion in the education stimulus budget, less than 1 percent was specifically earmarked for early education programs. About 1.5 percent of the $141 billion stimulus dollars sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services went toward its preschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start.
While small, those investments were encouraging, says Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation. The additional dollars allowed some programs like Early Head Start to expand and saved jobs and programs that would have struggled to stay alive.
But the story wasn’t as encouraging in Ohio, where the early education budget actually decreased this year. Even with stimulus money, Ohio only allocated about $128.6 million to early education in 2010. That’s about 1 percent of the state’s total education budget and close to $75 million less than it spent in 2009. The stimulus dollars allowed the state to trim that part of the budget without making devastating cuts to programs. But cuts were still made—the state’s Early Learning Initiative didn’t survive the recession—and it’s unknown what will happen when the stimulus windfall runs out.
Extra help gets derailed
Announced by the White House last July, the fund would have paid for states to align early learning programs with their existing K-12 systems, to strengthen systems used to monitor program quality and to coordinate and track all the services families use for children under age 5. Some states—like Ohio—are already working on such initiatives, but without federal funding.The program was to be paid for using savings from the student financial aid reform proposal. But when the student loan bill passed through Congress in March as part of the health-care reform, the Early Learning Challenge Fund had been dropped. The savings from the loan reform weren’t as great as originally projected, says Guernsey, whose organization tracks and advocates for early education policy and spending.
“In the end, it shriveled. The savings weren’t what they had been expecting from last year,” Guernsey says.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that early education is still a priority in the administration, but the fund has yet to be introduced in any other form. The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services held a listening tour this spring to learn more about early learning needs across the county.
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