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The State of State Pre-K: A Q&A with Lisa Guernsey

In just the couple of weeks since I took on this blog, I've received a number of articles about state-level advocacy on behalf of pre-K. My favorite was the New Mexico cops who say they'd rather take a budget bullet than see their state cut pre-K programs.

But rather than pass along state news piecemeal, I thought it would be worth trying to get a sense of the total picture. Lisa Guernsey, director of New America Foundation's Early Education Initiative, graciously agreed to help out with this via an e-mail Q & A, which I've edited down to blogworthy size.


Q. What's the national picture on pre-K?

A. Only seven states have a truly universal pre-K program—a state-funded program for any family regardless of income. Whether they can fully fund it is another matter. (She rightly pointed to my home state, Illinois, as an example of one that can't.) Oklahoma—the strongest—has included pre-K in its K-12 funding formula. That's a way of protecting pre-K programs. When all the grades, pre-K-12, are in the same formula, pre-K is more understood as a part of education funding. We wouldn't cut just second grade, right?


Q. What are other states doing?

A. Here's the breakdown from the NIEER 2009 yearbook, a great resource: 38 additional states use state dollars to fund pre-K programs, but their quality is highly variable. Only 16 states have enough funding to meet NIEER's quality benchmarks. Meanwhile, in 2009, 12 states had no program. (However, Rhode Island and Alaska started small pilot projects in 2010.)


Q. Can we tell yet the extent to which states have cut back on pre-K in response to budget deficits? From some quick Google scanning, I had the feeling that there was great concern about this earlier in the year, but some cuts have been less than anticipated. Is that an accurate picture?

A. It would be nice to think so, but I'm afraid it is just too early to tell. Note that in California, for example, the state budget still hasn't been passed. Pennsylvania made very slight cuts to pre-K in its original budget, but the governor has had to revise the budget, cutting early care and education to fill gaps in Medicaid funding.

Also, the pain of the recession is still to be felt in many states because the 2009 stimulus funding is just now coming to an end. It's possible that the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund—a program that came out of the February 2009 "stimulus" bill—has helped states avoid large cuts to education programs and that, in turn, has protected pre-K investments. But as my Ed Money Watch colleagues have shown, local districts haven't supplied enough information to make clear how their stimulus dollars are being spent. So we cannot say definitively that stabilization fund has helped. We are also awaiting information on how states will use the "edujobs" money that Congress passed last month to avoid teacher layoffs.

That's not to say there aren't bright spots. For example, at the federal level, funding has actually increased over the past couple of years for childcare and Head Start (the federal government's pre-K program for children in poverty). Those funding boosts may not last—we still don't know what Congress will approve for next year—but they have helped to soften the blow.


To stay on top of this, check out PreK Now's state-by-state website. While the site shows a slight uptick overall in pre-K funding if all the governors' proposals go through, PreK Now researchers are finding that, because some of these proposals didn't get the votes, the actual funding level from last year to this year may remain flat.

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