Fiscal woes threaten access to universal preschools

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The concept of universal access to pre-kindergarten has been slow to take hold across the country, and in some pioneering states, fiscal crises are threatening to cut back or eliminate the programs entirely. Here’s an update of recent events in selected states with existing or proposed universal preschool programs.

Georgia

Former Gov. Zell Miller gets credit for creating the nation’s first universal access pre-kindergarten program in 1997.

His vision of providing preschool to all 4-year-olds began to take shape during the 1992-93 school year with a pilot program serving 750 4-year-olds from low-income families. To support the program, Miller created a lottery to supplement funding, and a new state agency, the Office of School Readiness, to regulate it.

By September 1995, the program officially opened to all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income. Enrollment that year was 44,000—nearly three times higher than it had been the previous school year. By the 2002-03 school year, 65,000 children were enrolled, and the program’s annual budget was $128 million.

Georgia’s Office of School Readiness contracts with public schools, tuition-based for-profit and nonprofit preschools and Head Start centers—all of which must use an approved curriculum and adhere to strict guidelines on teacher certification.

Children spend six and a half hours a day in class, and receive instruction that emphasizes three key elements of school readiness: good health, rest and nourishment; ability to verbally communicate needs, wants and thoughts; and enthusiasm and curiosity about new activities. The curriculum focuses on language and literacy, math, science, art, physical development, and personal and social skills.

Since the program started, the Department of Early Childhood Education at Georgia State University has conducted frequent evaluations of it. The results have concluded that in several measures of academic and social achievement, kindergarteners who completed Georgia’s pre-k program surpassed those who did not have the preschool experience. One study found that pre-k children scored more than three months higher on achievement tests—including the Iowa Test of Basic Skills—than children who weren’t in such programs.

California

Thanks to smokers and the initiative of actor-director Rob Reiner, Los Angeles County is $100 million closer to providing pre-kindergarten to every 3- and 4-year-old child.

Studies showing the positive long-term effects of early education motivated Reiner to craft Proposition 10, a 50-cents-per-cigarette-pack tax that won voters’ approval by a thin 1 percent margin five years ago.

Last year, a commission charged with distributing Los Angeles County’s portion of the funds decided to use its $100 million share to plan a universal preschool program over the next 10 years.

Roughly $300 million in state funding already provides half-day preschool through public, private or Head Start programs for one-third of the county’s 300,000 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families. Another 100,000 of those children, however, do not have access to day care or early education programs.

In recent years, Proposition 10 revenues have decreased steadily, as smokers found ways to avoid the tax through Internet or black market purchases. An advisory committee of child care experts and community leaders began meeting in February to address strategies to sustain future funding.

Florida

Last November, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment calling for universal access to “high quality” preschools for every 4-year-old by 2005. The amendment stipulates that the program cannot be funded by reallocating money earmarked for existing education, health and development programs.

State officials are looking to imitate some aspects of Georgia’s universal pre-kindergarten, but have not yet determined whether to adopt its lottery-based funding structure or to create a separate agency to run it. Projected annual cost for the program is $450 million to $650 million.

Once state officials clear the considerable funding hurdles, Florida’s universal preschool plan could serve as many as 70 percent of the state’s 217,000 4-year-olds, predicts Florida’s Council for Education Policy Research and Improvement. (The remaining 30 percent include children whose families may notfavor preschool.)

New Jersey

New Jersey’s version of universal access to preschool resulted from a series of lawsuits that called for state-funded programs for poor children. In one of the lawsuits, plaintiffs argued that state-funded preschools were needed in the poorest school districts to level the educational playing field between inner city and suburban children.

By 1998, the state Supreme Court ordered a “well-planned, high-quality” full-day preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children living in the state’s poorest school districts, dubbed “Abbott” districts after the lawsuit that created them. This year, the Abbott districts are serving approximately 15 percent of the state’s 230,000 3- and 4-year-olds through state pre-kindergarten programs.

Another 102 school districts where at least 20 percent of students are low-income get state money to operate half-day preschool for 4-year-olds. Roughly 6 percent of New Jersey’s 117,000 4-year-olds are enrolled.

Sixty percent of school funding in New Jersey comes from property taxes. The 1998 court order requires the state to fill in the financial gap between low-income and wealthy school districts. This fiscal year, the state allocated $3.5 billion—more than half of the total line item for state aid to public schools—to Abbott districts.

For the next fiscal year, New Jersey Department of Education officials are proposing a 6 percent increase in funding for its universal preschool program. Despite the depressed economic climate, state education officials say they are optimistic that the department will get the additional revenue, in part because of support from Gov. James McGreevey, and, they add, because a preschool program that isn’t fully funded would violate the Abbott court order.

New York

In 1997, the New York Legislature approved a measure that established a universal pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds in low-income districts. But the program began losing steam when its state funding was frozen at $200 million—the aftermath of the economic downturn and Sept. 11.

Now, projected shortfalls in state revenue have thrown a wrench into next year’s budget that could decimate the program.

If state legislators approve Republican Gov. George Pataki’s proposed fiscal 2004 budget, state funding for universal pre-kindergarten would end in June. The cuts would leave state-funded programs, including subcontracted Head Starts and private nursery school centers, scrambling to find funding elsewhere to avoid shutting down.

While observers say it’s unlikely that the program will be eliminated, in part due to legislative Democrats’ strong support for it, significant reductions may occur. Critics say the governor should consider raising income taxes to salvage universal pre-kindergarten and other state education initiatives.

Last year, the universal pre-kindergarten program served about 25 percent of the state’s 260,000 4-year-olds. Funding per child varies. The state uses a sliding scale to determine how much preschool revenue to allocate to each district, with the poorest districts getting the most money. Those districts will be the biggest losers if funding is eliminated.

Most school districts offer the required half-day program, but districts with sufficient funds operate full-day preschools. Until 2001, children who qualified for federally funded lunches had enrollment priority. Since then, children were accepted on a first come, first served basis.

New York’s program requires school districts to contract out at least 10 percent of the slots to eligible community agencies. Head Starts, licensed home day care, child care centers and tuition-based schools account for 60 percent of the program’s slots.

Oklahoma

The only thing holding back Oklahoma’s indergarten program is the lack of a stable funding source, though that problem may soon be solved. Gov. Brad Henry is pushing lawmakers to authorize a referendum to create a lottery to fund public education, and the state legislature was considering a bill this spring.

Previously, projected revenue shortfalls this year had forced Henry to declare a state of fiscal emergency and persuade legislators to pass a bill that shifted $25.5 million from a rainy-day fund to elementary and secondary school districts.

Since 1998, when Oklahoma increased funding to open pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, enrollment has climbed steadily. Last school year, more than 60 percent of the state’s 47,000 4-year-olds were enrolled in state pre-kindergarten or a state-subsidized Head Start or child care center.

Though 91 percent of Oklahoma’s school districts provide state-funded pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds, space is still limited and enrollments are on a first come, first served basis.