You May Be Surprised By The States That Support Pre-K

Interactive: Obama’s universal pre-K plan is meeting resistance in Congress—but in the states, both parties support early childhood programs.

WOODBOURNE, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: Children eat breakfast at the federally-funded Head Start Program school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York. The school provides early education, nutrition and health services to 311 children from birth through age 5 from low-income families in Sullivan County, one of the poorest counties in the state of New York. The children receive 2/3 of their daily nutritional needs through meals, which include breakfast, lunch and snack, that are prepared at the school and served family-style in classrooms. The county Head Start program was expanded with a $1 million grant from President Obama's 2009 stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Head Start, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the longest-running early education program for children of low-income families in the United States. 
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Amy Sullivan and Brian Mcgill
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Amy Sullivan Brian McGill
April 17, 2014, 2:06 p.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama called for uni­ver­sal ac­cess to pre-K pro­grams in his 2014 State of the Uni­on ad­dress, view­ers could have been for­giv­en for think­ing this was just an­oth­er big gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ive that only a lib­er­al could love. But in fact, a look at in­vest­ments in pre-K edu­ca­tion at the state level shows that fund­ing is up around the coun­try—and that some crim­son red states like South Car­o­lina and Mis­sis­sippi are lead­ing the way. 

The Edu­ca­tion Com­mis­sion of the States ana­lyzed state data on pre-K fund­ing for the 2013-2014 fisc­al year and found that of the 40 states that provide state-sup­por­ted pro­grams for 4-year-olds, 30 of them (plus the Dis­trict of Columbia) in­creased their fund­ing for these pro­grams. And con­trary to what you might ex­pect, those in­creases don’t fol­low a par­tic­u­lar par­tis­an pat­tern. (Scroll over the in­ter­act­ive map to see an in­di­vidu­al state’s pre-K fund­ing level and how much it has in­creased or de­creased.)

That’s in part be­cause some of the most con­ser­vat­ive states in the coun­try have had the hard­est time budging stub­bornly low edu­ca­tion scores. It’s not dis­sim­il­ar from the situ­ation a few years ago in which South Car­o­lina de­cided to deal with a high teen preg­nancy rate by giv­ing com­pre­hens­ive sex edu­ca­tion—not ab­stin­ence-only—a try. 

And there’s an­oth­er prac­tic­al reas­on for con­ser­vat­ives to em­brace pre-K edu­ca­tion. Ad­voc­ates of early child­hood in­ter­ven­tions have al­ways made the mor­al ar­gu­ment that it’s the just thing to do in or­der to al­low chil­dren of all back­grounds to enter school on a level play­ing field. But now they also lay out the cost-be­ne­fit ana­lys­is: Spend money now or spend a lot more money later. Giv­en that poor chil­dren with lower levels of edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment are most likely to end up in the crim­in­al justice sys­tem or re­quir­ing so­cial ser­vice as­sist­ance, re­search­ers have de­term­ined that every dol­lar in­ves­ted in early child­hood edu­ca­tion saves a min­im­um of $7 later on.

A few in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ments in the states:

  • Mas­sachu­setts doubled its in­vest­ment in pre-K for the 2013-2014 fisc­al year in or­der to re­duce the waitl­ist of chil­dren wait­ing for spots in pro­grams, a num­ber that had reached nearly 15,000.
  • South Car­o­lina in­creased its fund­ing by al­most 80 per­cent in or­der to ex­tend early child­hood pro­grams to 17 ad­di­tion­al school dis­tricts in the state.
  • Min­nesota is now of­fer­ing schol­ar­ships for pre-school age chil­dren whose fam­ily’s in­come is low enough to qual­i­fy—those schol­ar­ships for private pro­grams are in ad­di­tion to the Head Start op­tions already avail­able.
  • New Mex­ico’s Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Susana Mar­tinez signed a bill last spring that will use money from the state’s to­bacco set­tle­ment to fund early child­care and edu­ca­tion pro­grams.

It’s im­port­ant to note that the pro­grams in­cluded in this data are just those that serve 4-year-olds. Many edu­ca­tion re­search­ers be­lieve that in­ter­ven­tions should start even earli­er, with school-based pro­grams be­gin­ning at age 3, and vol­un­tary home-based in­ter­ven­tions as early as in­fancy. Even so, the trend lines point to­ward more fed­er­al and state sup­port of early edu­ca­tion—wheth­er you live in a state that’s blue, red, purple, or polka-dot­ted. 

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