Betting on Public Support for Preschool

July 21, 2014

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “Early Education Polls Well With Republicans, Swing Voters” from Fawn Johnson.


The new polling data from the First Five Years Fund are a source of hope that major new investments in early care and education will take place in the near future. This may even have presaged by recent advances in preschool investment across the country from New York to Michigan to California. Particularly interesting from a policy perspective is that the public has come to solidly support investments in our youngest children and to recognize the value of early child care, not just preschool education. Yet, the new polling data also point to some important concerns and, in particular, policy pitfalls that must be avoided as more politicians jump on the early care and education bandwagon.

Despite strong, broadly based support for government action, the public is also committed to reducing the tax burden on families. Support for a major new federal investment drops sharply, and I suspect does not succeed with the Republican base, if funded by even a targeted tax increase. Nevertheless, unless Congress is willing to fund it by increasing the deficit, some kind of loophole closing or targeted tax increase is likely to be necessary. A sunset provision on the targeted tax increase, requiring it to end or be reapproved after 10 years, might raise support. The other alternative is to fund new investments in early care and education by cutting other programs; as a majority of voters disapprove of this strategy, any proposal funded in this manner should be viewed as a poison pill.

However, the most serious concern is that politicians seeking voter approval will favor expansion of slots over quality and sloganeering over substance. The history of state pre-K and federal child care and Head Start policy provide ample reason for concern. High quality programs that provide long hours of care and a good education are expensive. Poor quality care and preschool programs that provide only a few hours a week are cheap. Given the resistance to tax increases, it will be tempting for politicians–Democrats and Republicans, the White House and Congress–to encourage wishful thinking and spread too little money over too many children and families. The result will be an increase in spending, but no real investment. Hope will be expressed that once the expansion is achieved, added resources can be obtained for quality or that somehow efficiencies will be obtained that will allow us to produce high-quality at a much lower cost than has ever been achieved before.

This next year could prove to be a turning point in the quest for public investment in high-quality early care and education. As nation emerges from the recession, resource constraints will ease. With economic growth, there will be possibilities for new investments without commensurate increases in tax rates. Will early care and education remain a top priority? And, will quality remain part of the formula? The importance of putting quality first cannot be overemphasized because the expansion of poor quality programs only creates a larger interest group that favors a continuation of poor quality. One early tell-tale sign will be the Obama Administration’s action on preschool development grants–will they emphasize increased numbers over quality, given the relatively modest budget available? Another will be Seattle voters’ preferences regarding their ballot initiative on quality preschool for all. I would like to bet on quality, but children’s advocates will need to work harder than ever if I am going to win that bet.

- Steve Barnett, NIEER Director

The Profound Impact of Early Education

February 10, 2014

Every family in the United States should be able enroll their child in good preschool program, beginning at age three and ought to have access to good child care–including that provided by themselves at home–for infants and toddlers.  The benefits would be profound for our children and the larger society, especially children from low-income families–half of all young children–but not only for them. Today we are far from achieving this vision of a more nurturing society and our progress has been painfully slow over the last two decades.  All levels of government will have to increase their support for young children and families, including the federal government which can best lead the way by priming the pump–providing financial support and incentives that encourage and enable state and local governments to develop sustainable quality programs.  For example, federal matching funds that start off big and gradually decline are well-designed to address the major challenge to state and local funding of pre-K: states must pay for pre-K now, but the off-setting cost-savings grow year by year as children progress through the grades.

Only about half of 3-and-4-year-olds attend a preschool program. From a national observational study where the quality of care for 4-year-olds was directly observed, we know that few children attend good preschool programs. Public programs improve quality somewhat for children in poverty, so children in middle-income families actually attend worse programs on average. However, many young children are in family day care homes that provide even worse care, so much so that the family day care homes attended by most African-American and Hispanic children are of low quality. Our under-funded child care subsidy systems are perversely designed to encourage this and may actually increase the number of children in settings that harm their development.  As Cindy Lamy and I point out in our chapter in the recently published book Closing the Opportunity Gap, edited by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner, much of the educational failure and inequality that plagues our country is rooted in children’s experiences before they enter kindergarten.

In recent debates some have claimed that the federal government already spends a great deal on the care and education of young children and that most of this is wasted on ineffective programs. These claims are based on faulty math and misrepresentation of the evidence. Take for example, Grover Whitehurst’s estimate that the federal government spends $5,000 on every young child in poverty. He begins with $20 billion in annual spending on children–fair enough, Ron Haskins and I calculated that number together. But there are 5 million children in poverty, which yields $4,000 per child in poverty. And, of course, all of this is not spent just on children in poverty, so it would be much more reasonable to divide by the number of children under 5 in low income families = about 10 million children, and a  figure of $2,000 per child.

How does federal spending on disadvantaged young children’s care and education compare with federal largesse more generally?  Let’s consider two examples. The tax break for capital gains and dividends which allows wealthy hedge fund managers to pay a 15% income tax rate costs taxpayers $83 billion annually. In 2012, the federal government spent more than $20 billion on farm subsidies received by a small, relatively wealthy population. The 2014 farm bill increases so-called “crop insurance” subsidies that are actually open-ended revenue insurance for farmers.  If Congress set evidence-based priorities for all programs based on returns to the taxpayers, young children would see more money, not less.

What about the claims that federal money spent on young children is wasted?  I would have to agree that lost opportunities abound, but not as the critic’s suppose. Let’s get this clear: the Head Start national impact study’s oft cited intent-to-treat estimates grossly underestimate the program’s actual impacts, and even modest Head Start benefits likely generate benefits that exceed costs. Critics also seem to be in some kind of time warp that missed the last decade of Head Start reform and the evidence that these reforms increased effects on language and literacy development (if only Congress would call an expert in early language and literacy development to testify, surely this would be noted).

The biggest problems with federal programs for young children are that they ask too much of too little money. Nevertheless, both child care and Head Start spending could be better focused on learning and teaching. No amount of wishful thinking will permit this to be accomplished by reducing their budgets or just giving the money to states. The first step to improve Head Start should be doubling notoriously low salaries for highly effective teachers. The second step should be to dramatically reduce bureaucratic compliance requirements for any Head Start that agrees to be judged instead by teaching quality and children’s learning gains. The President’s pre-K proposal is in its own way a Head Start reform proposal that puts states in charge of the education of 4-year-olds; those two steps I set out above would go far toward enabling Head Start to integrate with and enhance state pre-K. States like West Virginia and New Jersey have already successfully integrated their programs with Head Start and child care at high standards. Federal policy that followed such leads could support states to significantly improve opportunity for America’s youngest citizens.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “The ‘Noble Intention’ of Giving Early Education” from Fawn Johnson.

Highly Qualified Teachers: The Workforce Early Education Needs and Deserves

June 3, 2013

Well-trained, responsive, and effective teachers are essential to a high-quality early education program. While research has sometimes been murky on what the appropriate training and credentialing for early educators should be, a lack of good data has made it difficult in the past to explore the current situation. Recent research has helped shed some light on what the characteristics of early childhood educators.

The 2012 State Preschool Yearbook indicates that progress has been made in increasing the qualifications of teaching staff. In the 2011-2012 school year, 58 percent of state pre-K programs required lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, increasing from 45 percent in 2001-2002. Eighty-five percent of programs now require lead teachers to have specialized training in early childhood, up from 74 percent a decade ago. For the first time in the 2012 Yearbook, NIEER asked for the breakdown of pre-K teachers by degree, which helps paint a picture of credentialing on the ground. While 22 programs were not able to report these figures, having some of this information is a step in the right direction. According to Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), the percent of Head Start teachers with a BA or higher increased from 45 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2011, indicating significant progress on teacher credentials in recent years. While the CLASP report goes into more detail, preliminary figures for the 2012 year can be gathered from the FY14 Congressional Justification for the Department of Health and Human Services (Head Start section beginning on page 95).  These figures are summarized in Figure 1.

Teacher Degrees, State Pre-K and Head Start

For both state-funded pre-K (when reported) and Head Start, the majority of teachers have at least a Bachelor’s degree, with 79 percent of pre-K teachers holding a BA or higher compared to 62 percent in Head Start. Interestingly, a greater proportion of state-funded pre-K teachers have less than an Associate’s degree, with 15 percent holding a CDA.  While a CDA does require some specialized training in early childhood or a related field, it requires fewer credit hours than does an AA. If the goal is to ensure all lead teachers have a BA, state-funded pre-K may face a longer road in supporting these teachers through the additional coursework.

Any discussion of teacher credentials must also discuss compensation: without adequate compensation, early education programs will likely see high turnover and difficulty in recruiting the best teachers who could be paid higher in K-12 classrooms. It is also difficult to require teachers to meet higher degree requirements without increasing salary. According to 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary across settings for a Preschool teacher (not including special education) was just $27,450, compared to $50,380 for a Kindergarten teacher and $53,150 for Elementary School teachers generally. Information specific to both state-funded pre-K and Head Start programs bear out this trend of comparably low pay. Data from the 2009 Yearbook (the last year for which salary information was collected) indicates that for state-funded programs which could report data on salaries, 83 percent of pre-K teachers in public school settings and 88 percent in nonpublic school settings were paid below $50,000l, as seen in Table 1 below. For those reporting, the median salary category was $40-44,999 for those in public schools and $30-34,999 for those in nonpublic school settings.

Table 1: Lead Teacher Salary Ranges in Public and Nonpublic Settings, 2008-2009 School YearHead Start programs also pay low salaries, even lower than those of state pre-K teachers outside the public schools; even Head Start teachers with graduate degrees are paid at rates lower than Kindergarten teachers in public schools, as seen in Table 2.

Table 2: Head Start Teacher Salaries by Degree, National Average, 2011-2012

What does this all mean for the field? A new paper from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) found that the turnover rate from 2009 to 2010 among school-based early childhood care and education workers was 13.6, while center- and home-based workers had turnover rates of 24.4 percent and 28.5 percent, respectively. These data may include providers and teachers not included in state-funded pre-K or Head Start data, but coupled with reports from Georgia’s highly regarded state pre-K program that teachers left in droves when salaries were cut due to a shortened school year, it is clear that teacher turnover is an issue of continued concern in early education.  The CEPA paper goes on to examine trends in the field across sectors from 1990 to 2010 and found that despite significant attention and investment in the field during this time period, the “workforce remains a low‐education, low‐compensation, and high‐turnover workforce.” As researchers and policymakers alike consider complex issues like teacher effectiveness and evaluation, aligning across sectors, and best reaching traditionally undeserved students, it bears reminding them that a well-educated, well-respected, professional workforce is essential to getting the most bang for the public’s buck in early education.

—Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

The Perry Preschool Study and Head Start

March 8, 2013

This guest post is an open letter in response to The Wall Street Journal editorial “Head Start for All.”

Larry SchweinhartYour Review & Outlook “Head Start for All” (Feb. 25) makes several incorrect claims about the HighScope Perry Preschool Study. As director of the study, I’d like to set the record straight.

Your review claims that the Perry study and the Abecedarian study are the sole evidence that preschool works. But they are just the best known of a large number of studies finding that preschool works, that is, has its intended effects on children. Along with the city-wide Chicago Child-Parent Centers study, these studies go a big step further by finding strong long-term effects and return on investment.

In the presence of large returns on investment, the initial cost should be a secondary consideration. That said, the Perry Preschool cost per child was well below the $16,000 per child per year or more you said it cost. In current dollars, it cost $11,107 per child per year, about the same as the cost per K-12 student in the U.S. The Perry Preschool program is not that hard to replicate—and have its return on investment widely realized. We simply need to insist on reasonable program standards – qualified teachers using a proven curriculum, partnership with parents, and regular evaluation. Unfortunately, far too many existing preschool programs do not meet these standards.

The disappointing results of the national Head Start Impact Study are hardly a reason to abandon the program when other studies, like the Perry Preschool Study, show its enormous potential. The Head Start Impact Study does suggest a course correction, bringing the resources of Head Start more fully to bear on contributing to the development of young children living in poverty. Such improvements are achievable and, with them, widespread improvements in educational achievement, economic productivity, and reduced costs to taxpayers.

- Larry Schweinhart, President, HighScope Educational Research Foundation

Federal Proposal Would Build on State Efforts

February 26, 2013

Steve BarnettPresident Obama’s call to action on early education is a watershed moment that has the potential to improve education for millions of American students. Ensuring all students have the opportunity to attend high-quality preschool, regardless of income and geography, is a key component of an effective education system that prepares students for success in school and society.

State-funded pre-K has grown substantially over the last decade to serve 28 percent of 4-year-olds, up from 14 percent in 2001. Yet, this is only part of the picture. As many as 40 percent are served by public programs when Head Start and preschool special education are counted, though the latter may consist of only a few hours of therapy a week. Over 80 percent are in some type of out of home arrangement including private programs and family home child care. Unfortunately, research now makes it clear that the quality of many of these arrangements as assessed by direct observation is far too low to promote educational opportunity. Some are so poor they may actually increase children’s risk of school failure. Head Start’s weaknesses have been noted by many as debate over this proposal has unfolded, but Head Start is far better than many of the private centers and day care homes children attend. NIEER has just released an in-depth look at what the research tells us about the outcomes of early education which can help clarify some confusion seen in media report.

That is why it is so important to understand that the President’s pre-K proposal will raise quality and educational effectiveness, not just increase the number of seats available.  And, it will do this by lifting up the entire field.  The models of successful pre-K for all already operate show the way. Oklahoma, New Jersey’s Abbott program, and West Virginia all integrate private providers and Head Start into state-funded pre-K.  What does this mean?  Head Start teachers nationally are paid barely more than pet sitters and dog walkers. This is Head Start’s Achilles heel. Teachers in private child care make even less.  To use the New Jersey example, when integrated into state pre-K these teachers were given the opportunity to go back to school and get stronger preparation, they were assigned teacher coaches who worked with them as partners to improve their teaching, and their salaries were doubled. Of course, this came with accountability for results, but the vast majority delivered. Teaching quality in all classrooms, private and public, was raised from poor/mediocre to good/excellent.

Planning for this reform process has already begun in most states through their state early learning advisory councils.  In addition, 35 states and the District of Columbia developed reform plans when they applied for funds to expand early education through the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge in 2011. However, only nine states were awarded funds. These applications demonstrate a clear interest and capacity by state governments to partner with the federal government to start all children on the right path. States have never been better poised to prioritize early education and the federal government’s role is welcome support.

The White House preschool proposal has a few key words that are important in understanding how this would play out: “federal-state partnership” and “cost-sharing.” This isn’t the federal government signing a blank check to foot the entire bill for early education; it is limited support based on the number of low-income children in a state and tied to a small number of standards already adopted by many states. If other states do not want to raise quality, they do not have to participate. If they do participate, they will be in charge, not the federal government, which could list its requirements on a single page.  The list of states that we believe might qualify with little or no change to state policy includes not just Oklahoma and Georgia, but also Alabama, Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West VirginiaMississippi is currently advancing legislation that would meet the test as well.

Once it is understood, the President’s pre-K plan should be endorsed by practically everyone. It supports equity and excellence in the pre-K policies advanced by governors of both parties. Both critics and supporters of Head Start should welcome it as Head Start reform that will strengthen that program and improve its effectiveness. Those who want to see more choice and competition should applaud federal support for state programs that incorporate private providers. To return to our New Jersey example, two-thirds of the children are served by private providers supported by local school districts responsible for ensuring quality through teacher coaching and supports to help children with special needs succeed in regular classes.

Given all of its advantages, the primary objection in Congress to the President’s proposal is likely to be that we can’t afford new spending when deficits loom so large. Yet, this is fundamentally a pro-growth, deficit reduction proposal. The biggest returns to this investment will kick in years down the road when the deficit is projected to become a more serious problem. And, it addresses root causes of the deficit–slow growth and rising costs of government including health care costs. Quality pre-K will enhance productivity to increase growth, decrease the costs of school failure and crime, and reduce smoking and other risky behaviors that harm health. Sure, it’s just one small contribution to deficit reduction, but a $50 billion investment over 10 years could contribute a few hundred million dollars to deficit reduction.

Rejecting the President’s pre-K plan is the far more costly alternative. We cannot afford to leave so many children behind with more than a third not ready to succeed at kindergarten entry. We cannot afford the lost growth and increased costs to government when they subsequently fail. We cannot afford failing to recognize that this is not just a problem for the 45 percent of our children who live below 200 percent of poverty, but for the vast majority of families. Deficit hawks, education reformers, and civil rights activists should unite to lead the charge for this proposal in Congress.  States–red and blue–have already shown the way forward. Congress should follow.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “Holy Preschool, Batman” by Fawn Johnson.

Not Just Wishful Thinking

January 10, 2013

Steve BarnettEnsuring that all our children are ready to succeed when they enter kindergarten is a tremendous task, made much more difficult in the United States by high levels of poverty and low levels of parental education. One in four preschoolers lives in poverty, nearly half in low-income families. Twenty-seven percent are born to mothers without a high school diploma or GED. Assessments at kindergarten entry show that surprisingly many children from middle-income families are poorly prepared to succeed. There are many public policies that could contribute to reducing this problem, and there is no single solution, but let us consider one that seems obvious and for which there is considerable evidence, public preschool programs.

Public preschool education could be an important part of the solution, but currently it is not given a chance. Ensuring school readiness through preschool education is precluded by low levels of investment and high levels of wishful thinking. Far too many children lack access to preschool education, and it is least available to those who could benefit most. The majority of 3-year-olds in homes where Spanish is the primary language don’t attend any preschool program. Some don’t qualify for publicly funded programs because their parents work long hours to keep them out of poverty. Others live in states that don’t fund any preschool program at all or in neighborhoods that aren’t served. As a nation we spend far more public money on prisons than on preschools. Federal and state governments together spend less on preschool education than Americans spend on pet food.

The latest research on preschool program outcomes to cross my desk is the third grade follow-up of the national randomized trial of Head Start. It is now clear: Head Start produces no perceptible lasting gains in any domain of child development. This does not rule out very small persistent gains, but Head Start is not meeting its goals. Yet, much of the field seems to be in denial, responding that bad public schools erode the effects of Head Start. Somehow they fail to see that even initial gains are quite small and that children in the study made much larger gains in kindergarten and the early grades than they did in Head Start. Other studies confirm that learning gains in kindergarten are much larger than in Head Start. The root of the problem is that Head Start is locked into a program model that fails to focus on intensive education and pays teaching staff abysmally. This model has failed every true experimental test (Early Head Start, the Comprehensive Child Development Program, the Child and Family Resource Centers).

State pre-K programs often are little better than Head Start since they too usually lack the funding and standards of public education for kindergarten. State subsidized child care (as opposed to preschool education) is so poor that it may actually harm child development on average. Clearly, just shifting Head Start to the states is not enough to solve the problem. However, for all the faults of public education, one only has to look at growth curves for learning over time to conclude that if preschool were supported like kindergarten, children would be much better prepared. And, looking at the programs found to produce substantive lasting gains for children in well-controlled studies, the common theme is that they are much more educationally intensive than our current preschool programs. It is time to face facts and change directions.

If the United States is to effectively address the school readiness problem, public preschool programs must provide much more intensive education to many more children. Only public preschool education for all children is likely to achieve this goal. Means-tested programs exclude too many children who need help. The federal government should incentivize states to offer preschool programs that meet a small number of well-defined criteria for quality and set a goal to serve all children by a certain date. Then let states innovate as they have a track record of creating flexible public-private preschool partnerships. The focus of accountability should be on strong teaching and truly substantive gains in broad child development. Head Start should be integrated into public education as a funding stream to enhance the education of young children in poverty so that they start early and receive the best teachers and smallest classes. Once we stop thinking of preschool as charity and start thinking of it as an investment in everyone’s future we might actually do what is necessary to meaningfully improve the education of young children.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “Pre-K for Everyone?” by Fawn Johnson.

The Importance of Having Data; Or What Would Sherlock Holmes Do?

January 8, 2013

“‘Data! Data! Data!’ he cried impatiently, ‘I cannot make bricks without clay!’”
— “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes isn’t the only one relying on data. As anyone in the education world—researchers, parents, teacher, principals, and students—can tell you, decision-making in education is increasingly based on data that shows us what is and isn’t working. So what happens when we don’t have the data we need? Schools that receive federal and state education funds often have specific data reporting requirements, making centralized data collection and analysis relatively convenient. But early childhood education, fragmented across states, localities, programs, and sectors, presents a challenge to the data wonk.

Sherlock Holmes statue

Sherlock Holmes muses on some data points.

Lisa Guernsey and her team at the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative have been leading a recent charge to improve data collection. Last month, they released their updated Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP), an impressive database of federal data on education spending and enrollment at the district level. For the first time, FEBP sought to provide pre-K spending data at the state and district level, but noted that many state-funded pre-K programs are not necessarily governed by the same district borders as are K-12. Their policy brief accompanying FEBP’s release sums it up:

“Pre-K and kindergarten data at the local level are labyrinthine and disorganized, hampering any ability to craft policies for equitable access and funding. States must collect more complete and comparable data from school districts and CBOs if policymakers and the public are to understand the state of education for young children in their communities and states.”

So how do we improve early education data? Elementary, my dear Watson.

Improve Existing Information Collection

We don’t just need more data, we need more of the right data, presented in a clear and timely way. The U.S. Census Bureau asks about pre-K participation in its American Community Survey. However, this question suffers from several methodological short-comings: it relies on parent reporting of participation (rather than data from the schools) and includes children ages 3 to 4 enrolled in nursery school or preschool during the previous two months, which may then include children who do not remain enrolled for most of the year, while excluding children enrolled earlier or later. Ultimately, as acknowledged by Alex Holt at the New America Foundation, this question “is so convoluted that we consider the data from it to be effectively useless. Even at the federal level, the U.S. government has no idea how many children are enrolled in pre-K.” Likewise, the information collected on prekindergarten enrollment by the National Center for Education Statistics through its schools survey includes only those children served in programs operated in public elementary schools, without differentiating between 3- and 4-year-olds.  Across all data sets there is considerable uncertainty regarding the extent to which we can accurately identify all classroom participation regardless of the name attached (child care, special education, state pre-K, local public school, Head Start, private preschool, etc.) and even more uncertainty regarding whether we can identify types of programs.  Even separating public and private is difficult because of ambiguities. (For example, many state pre-K programs are operated by private providers, and even Head Start providers are mostly private non-profits.)  So, information is widely available to researchers but it may not answer the questions they’re asking.

Develop Comprehensive Data Systems

The Early Childhood Data Collaborative advocates for coordinated longitudinal early childhood data systems, which are state efforts to collect data to track children’s progress from early childhood and beyond. Their 10 fundamentals of data systems seek to improve data collection and allow stakeholders to link information both longitudinally and to other key programs, while ensuring the system is well-managed, secure, and maintains privacy. Their recent brief on those states who addressed longitudinal data systems in their Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) applications highlighted important trends, including filling gaps in current data (including information on the workforce) and collaborating across early childhood education systems and agencies.

The very inclusion of data systems as an optional component of RTT-ELC indicates the need for data has been elevated to a place of important within the federal government and hopefully drives continued collaboration among states to improve their current systems.

Fund Quality Data Collection Efforts

Finally, as a field, we need to continue supporting high-quality research collecting data on policies within early childhood education programs. In a piece at The Huffington Post, Lisa Guernsey writes in support of NIEER’s State Preschool Yearbooks, noting:

“The idea behind the yearbooks, Barnett said, was ‘to create an archived data set that would be consistent across the states.’ By making the information available to all, he explained, reporters and policymakers who wanted data would not have to call all 50 states, ‘and state officials could provide information that was comparable to what was provided by the state next door.’ NIEER … sought to halt the spread of misinformation about which states were offering good pre-K programs and enrolling high numbers of children, and which ones weren’t.”

After the Pew Charitable Trusts ended their 10-year investment in the Yearbooks, NIEER has been seeking for a new funder for what’s become one of the most well-respected, well-cited data sources on American early education. Guernsey refers to the times before the Yearbook as “the dark ages,” and it’s hard to imagine going back to a time without it, without media coverage from CBS and NBC and the support of the U.S. Secretary of Education. We’ve seen tremendous growth in not only the media attention on pre-K, but in state-funded pre-K itself: by the 2010-2011 year, nine more pre-K programs were available than in the 2001-2002 year, and quality standards have increased overall even as the Great Recession has worn away at program funds.

Our annual Yearbook publication is a true labor of love, one we’re proud to produce each year, and we’re overwhelmed by the positive response of the early childhood community in supporting and sharing our work. Yet, even this work only covers one of the major segments of the field. We need good data to make the right decisions for early education and the future of America’s students. Only by supporting, collecting, analyzing, and sharing this information with the field will we be able to live up to this advice from the esteemed Detective Holmes: “No, no: I never guess. It is a shocking habit, destructive to the logical faculty.”

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

State Support for Head Start Over the Years

March 27, 2012

In addition to offering state pre-K and child care subsidies some states support pre-K by adding on to the federal Head Start program. Supplementing Head Start programs with state funding allows states to build upon the federal Head Start program–funding more children, providing extended-day and/or extended-year services, or making quality improvements. This is especially important for several states that don’t otherwise fund pre-K at the state level. In 2009-2010 this included Idaho and New Hampshire.  Delaware, Minnesota, and Oregonserved enough additional children through their Head Start state supplements for these to qualify as de facto state pre-K programs by NIEER’s definition.

It’s been a long time since we’ve looked longitudinally at states’ supplements to the federal Head Start program. Unfortunately, we haven’t had good news to report. Data from The State of Preschool 2010 indicate that states have cut funding and serve fewer children since we started tracking these numbers in The State of Preschool: 2003 State Preschool Yearbook.

Between fiscal years 2002 and 2010, the total number of states supplementing Head Start dipped only from 17 to 16, with Indiana and Ohio halting state funding of Head Start programs while Idaho began providing a state supplement.  In addition, Hawaii began funding a state supplement to Head Start in the 2003-2004 school year, but then stopped this funding in the 2007-2008 school year. Overall, as indicated in Table 1, adjusted and nominal spending, as well as enrollment, have all declined in this time period; adjusted spending was nearly cut in half.

Table 1: Changes in Head Start Supplements, 2001-2002 to 2009-2010


 Changes, 2001-2002 to 2009-2010

 Spending (2010 $)



 Nominal Spending



 Enrollment, 3s and 4s



As shown in Table 2, the decreases took place at the beginning of the last decade, followed by an uptick until the 2009-2010 school year when it is likely that the recession started taking its toll.

Table 2: Longitudinal Changes in Head Start State Supplements

As we prepare for the release of the 2011 edition of the State Preschool Yearbook, we are seeing more of this downward trend. States are reporting less support for the 2010-2011 school year and are indicating that the 2011-2012 school year will fare even worse. Some states are completely eliminating their supplement to the federal program as a budget closing measure. This could present a double-whammy as stimulus money that benefitted federal Head Start is simultaneously disappearing at a time when the high child poverty rate makes clear how much young learners need these services. Stay tuned for when The State of Preschool 2011 is released on April 10th.

- Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Investing for Today and Tomorrow: Early Learning in the Federal FY 2013 Budget Proposal

February 15, 2012

Starting the week on an exciting note for elected officials, advocates, and policy wonks, President Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 on Monday morning. Education was a clear priority throughout the press conference at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia, particularly on preparing students for 21st century jobs by focusing on career and technical skills. As readers of this blog can attest, early education is an important building block in preparing students for a life of learning and earning.

Details of the budget are still being fleshed out, but there seems to be good news for early education in the White House’s proposal, as outlined below.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed budget:

  • Department-wide discretionary budget of $76.4 billion, a $0.3 billion increase over the FY2012 level.
  • Head Start and Early Head Start: Set to receive more than $8 billion to serve about 962,000 children and families, which would maintain the enrollment expansion seen in the 2009-2010 program year. The proposal acknowledges that it will support the implementation of the new Head Start re-competition regulations.
  • Child care subsidies:  Additional $7 billion over 10 years to support child care subsidies for low-income children.
  • Child Care Development Block Grant: Additional $300 million to improve the quality of child care facilities.

Department of Education proposed budget:

  • Department-wide discretionary budget of $69.8 billion, a $1.7 billion increase over FY2012 level.
  • Race to the Top (RTT): $850 million for another round.  According to a Department of Education press release, a “significant portion” of these funds would be allocated for an expansion for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, which would continue under the joint tutelage of the Departments of Education and HHS.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): $472.7 million in Grants for Infants and Families, to provide early intervention services to children birth through age 2 with disabilities and $372.6 million for IDEA Preschool Grants for children ages 3 through 5 with disabilities.
  • Promise Neighborhoods: Proposed increase of $100 million for this competitive grant program that seeks to help high-need communities develop cooperative strategies to improve outcomes for children through both educational reforms and life outside the classroom. Past winners have focused energies specifically on early education as a tool.
  • Investing in Innovation Fund (i3): Requests $150 million for the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) to build on three previous i3 competitions. The Department’s budget summary only goes so far as to suggest that priority “could be given to projects proposing to improve early learning outcomes.”
  • Institute for Education Sciences (IES):  $30 million in new research and development grants for early learning and elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education.

In addition, the National Women’s Law Center has information on additional federal programs in the FY13 proposal that support families with young children, including the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. Of course, not all child care funding goes to children under 5 (though most does) and early education will only be a modest fraction of such high-profile initiatives such as i3, Promise Neighborhoods, and RTT.

Laura Bornfreund, Maggie Severns, and Clare McCann at Early Ed Watch compiled the helpful table below to track changes since FY2011 in some key programs used for early education.


As noted by the New America Foundation’s Key Questions on the Obama Administration’s 2013 Education Budget Request, there are still a number of questions surrounding the place of early education in this budget, including whether the portion of RTT funds earmarked for early learning would be distributed at the state level or district level. They also note that the budget proposal encourages districts to redesign school schedules to better serve students through the 21st Century Community Learning program, though it is unclear so far whether states will be encouraged to apply this to the early grades, such as extending half-day kindergarten into full-day services.

It’s worth noting that a presidential budget proposal is, according to Birth to Thrive, just “the first move in a high-stakes game that will be complicated this year by presidential and congressional politics.” Considering the sharp partisan divisions seen in recent legislative battles, the pressure of the Budget Control Act to cut spending by $900 billion over 10 years, and the high-profile politics of an election year, it is hard to say exactly how much of this proposal will ever see funding. The great strength of the budget proposal, though, is to allow the president to lay out his priorities in greater detail than any speech or campaign ad could. Early education is clearly an administration priority, though perhaps not as high a priority as we would like.  All of us concerned about the future of America’s youngest learners must ensure that elected officials remember that high-quality early education programs are a good economic investment both short-term and in the future.

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Eating Right, Learning Right

October 10, 2011

The important link between children’s health and their education is being highlighted this week with the celebration of National School Lunch Week. This year’s theme is “School Lunch – Let’s Grow Healthy,” as part of a three-month long campaign by the School Nutrition Association to highlight the importance of school lunch programs. Common sense tells us that children with empty stomachs can’t concentrate on classroom learning or homework. With this in mind, schools and pre-K programs often offer snacks and meals throughout the day to make sure children are fully prepared to learn and excel. The federal Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), administered through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides guidelines for serving nutritious meals and snacks in child care centers and afterschool programs. In addition, providing nutritious meals to children is a key component of the federal Head Start program’s services to low-income children and families.

Each year, NIEER gives state pre-K initiatives a rating based on meeting 10 quality standards benchmarks, which address a variety of quality components including services such as meals. As we stated in The State of Preschool 2010, “these items are included because children’s overall well-being and success in school involves not only their cognitive development but also their physical and social/emotional health.” In order to meet our benchmark on meals, state programs must require by policy that all programs, regardless of hours of operation, offer at least one meal each day.

Unfortunately, in the 2009-2010 school year, only 24 of 52 state-funded pre-K programs met the benchmark of at least one meal being required in state policy. (See Table 1 for a list of the programs meeting the benchmark for required meals.) Twenty of these 24 programs specifically mention lunch in their meal requirements.

Table 1. State programs requiring at least one meal in all pre-K classes

Alabama Louisiana LA4 Oregon
Alaska Louisiana NSECD Pennsylvania HSSAP
Arkansas Maryland Rhode Island
Delaware Minnesota South Carolina CDEPP
Georgia New Jersey Abbott Tennessee
Iowa Shared Visions New Mexico Washington
Kentucky North Carolina West Virginia
Louisiana 8(g) Oklahoma Wisconsin Head Start

However, only five programs – Pennsylvania EABG, Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK, Vermont Act 62, Vermont EEI, and Virginia – reported that no meals or snacks are required by state policy. The remaining 23 programs either reported that snacks were required and/or that meals are required for full-day programs but not half-day programs.

For the 2009-2010 school year, we also asked states to report on whether meals and snacks need to meet nutritional guidelines and found that all but 10 programs require this. (See Table 2 for a list of those programs not requiring programs to use nutritional guidelines.) Of those meeting nutritional guidelines, all were using federal nutrition guidelines set by the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Table 2. State programs not requiring the use of nutritional guidelines

Florida Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK
Illinois Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts
Nevada Rhode Island
New Jersey ELLI Vermont Act 62
Pennsylvania EABG Vermont EEI

The federal Head Start program’s nutritional guidelines play a role here as all five state programs that are Head Start supplements met the benchmark for meals. This is particularly noteworthy in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the states’ other pre-K initiatives do not meet the meal requirement benchmark while the Head Start supplements do.

As with any other of the quality standards we report on in the State Preschool Yearbook series, it is important to remember that we are discussing policy here and not necessarily practice. While not every state policy requires that all programs offer at least one meal, some, or perhaps even all, of those programs may exceed the policy and do so. Still, with only 24 state pre-K programs on the record with a commitment to providing their students with at least one meal a day, we have a long way to go before we can truly celebrate school nutrition.

Child nutrition is of increasing concern as childhood obesity rates increase while food insecurity also spreads. President Obama’s proclamation of this week pointed to the need for collaboration throughout communities to bring students healthy food every day at school, a goal toward which we still work. At a time when Sesame Street has created a new Muppet to address the issue of food insecurity—the 17 million children in families who don’t know where their next meal comes from—it is clear that providing nutritious, consistent meals to children in school can go a long way to improving their daily lives.

- Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


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