The U.S. Department of Education released estimates last week of the amount of federal funding each state is poised to receive if they opt into the Preschool for All program, part of the Obama Administration’s push to provide pre-k to every low and moderate-income four-year-old in America.
The proposal has been hailed by early education advocates. But like Obama’s previous efforts to increase support for early education, it’s likely to face major roadblocks in Congress, where conservative lawmakers have balked at the idea of spending more money on preschool. The recent proposal comes on the heels of a federal decision in April to direct about $370 million, the majority of funds in the latest round of Race to the Top, to the Early Learning Challenge, a competitive grant process that rewards state for increasing early childhood opportunities.
In order to fund the new $75 billion program, Obama has proposed raising cigarette taxes by 94 cents a pack, which has been met with resistance by the tobacco industry.
Although states like Michigan and Mississippi have recently expanded efforts to improve early childhood education, nationally, preschool has had a shaky year. In March, sequestration cuts reduced funding for Head Start by 5.27 percent, forcing some of the federally funded pre-k centers across the country to end the school year early, reduce spots for children, and fire teachers.
In 2011-12, state spending on pre-k per child dropped in 27 of the 40 states that fund preschool, to its lowest point in 10 years, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). While three states improved in quality according to NIEER standards, seven slid backward. And for the second year in a row, enrollment of four-year-olds in pre-k remained stagnant.
The federal funds proposed under Obama’s latest plan, which vary from $334 million in for California to $2.6 million for North Dakota, come with extensive conditions attached. States would be required to match a percentage of their federal funds each year and meet federal quality guidelines around curriculum and teacher qualifications in order to receive funding. The Obama administration estimates that only 15 states will be approved to receive funding in the first year.
“Not everybody will jump in line right away,” said Helen Blank, Director of Child Care and Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington D.C. based non-profit that advocates for low-income women and their families. Blank said that the new federal funds would be significant enough, and the matching funds would be small enough, to encourage states to create or expand preschool programs that will target the poorest children. “It’s a start for a state that hasn’t been able to invest,” she said.
But some advocates worry that the threat of future costs could deter conservative lawmakers in many states, especially those with the fewest preschool offerings and the highest numbers of children in poverty, from participating in the federal program. “I think that there are a lot of folks who are nervous about agreeing to that and creating an obligation of that size for their successors,” said Catriona Macdonald, campaign manager for the First Five Years Fund, a non-profit aimed at expanding early childhood opportunities. Despite research that has found preschool to be beneficial, states like Texas, which has refused federal funding for education, and those like Montana, which still do not fund pre-k, are also expected to opt-out.
Studies have shown that the first five years in a child’s life are crucial to a child’s educational success, and children who start behind often stay behind. Children from low-income homes often have less access to books and learning materials, and hear fewer words than children with a higher socioeconomic status.
In April, legislators in Mississippi, the state with the highest child poverty rate in the nation, passed its first pre-k bill, which will go into effect this year. The program will serve about 12 percent of four-year-olds in the state by providing $8 million in funding over the next three to five years to pre-k programs that can meet new and rigorous guidelines around teacher qualifications and curriculum, and raise half the cost of their programs.
But unlike every other Southern state, with the exception of Alabama, its law does not prioritize seats for low-income students or English language learners. In 2008, one out of every 14 kindergarteners and one out of every 15 first graders in the state was deemed unprepared for the next grade-level, which many early childhood advocates believe could be helped by a better early childhood system and more federal support.
Although Mississippi would only be required to provide $2.1 million as a match to receive federal funding, Obama’s program intends for states to assume more financial responsibility and oversight over the course of 10 years. “I think that is going to be the stumbling block for Mississippi’s decisions,” said Cathy Grace, director of the Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State University. “As the match increases, then that will put more burden on the state,” she said.
Reactions to the federal proposal have been mixed across the country, and within the parties. Some conservative lawmakers fear that the program will waste money and invite too much government control over how states run preschool programs. Others have cited a controversial Head Start study released in December, which found that by the end of first grade, positive effects of the pre-k program had mostly disappeared.
In Tennessee, Rep. Bill Dunn, a Republican and critic of pre-k programs, said that the state should ignore the federal offer according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. In West Virginia, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, welcomed the federal support, saying that the funding would help the state’s current efforts to improve its extensive pre-k program, according to The Charleston Gazette.
On Tuesday, Mississippi Sen. Brice Wiggins, a Republican, showed support for the federal proposal while speaking at an event in Washington, D.C. Wiggins, who sponsored the pre-k legislation in Mississippi that was recently signed into law, stated that pre-k is a “bipartisan issue” that is crucial to academic success and economic growth. This year, Republican governors in six states, and Democratic governors in two states, have proposed or signed laws supporting pre-k, according to The Mississippi Press.