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State-funded Preschools Feel Effects of Recession

Good morning, I'm Julie Rasicot and I'll be joining Lesli Maxwell in providing you with the latest news in early childhood education. As a mother of two girls who are now in high school and middle school, I can certainly recall the important role that preschool played in preparing my daughters for success when they entered kindergarten.

Although my kids attended a private preschool, lots of children depend on state-funded prekindergarten programs to get them ready for elementary school. That's why it was disheartening to learn this week that public prekindergarten programs in some states are becoming the latest victims of the recession.

According to a report in USA Today, shrinking budgets have forced some states to stop expanding and, in some cases, cut back on existing programs. And that means that slots aren't available as even more economically stressed families qualify for state-funded programs.

Research shows that children from low-income families can greatly benefit from quality prekindergarten programs. Yet these are the kids that are often priced out when school districts cut back and private programs become the only option.

The curtailing of expansion and cutbacks come after a decade that saw state funding for prekindergarten more than double nationwide to $5.1 billlion and access increase by about 300,000 kids to more than 1 million, according to Pre-K Now, a 10-year campaign of The Pew Center on the States. About 40 states fund their own programs; some may be combined with the federal Head Start program that provides services to needy kids.

Despite this promising growth, funding issues began to affect state-funded programs in the 2009-2010 school year, says the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, which has been tracking state funding for prekindergarten since 2002.

During that school year, total state funding for prekindergarten decreased by nearly $30 million, marking the first time that spending has decreased from the previous year since the NIEER began tracking the numbers.

And while enrollment in state-funded preschool programs increased by nearly 27,000 that school year to about 1.3 million kids, those figures only translate into about 27 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds attending, the NIEER says.

Add in enrollment in Head Start and those figures increase to just 40 percent for 4-year-olds and 14 percent for 3-year-olds.

The news is not all bad: the federal government this month gave a boost to nine states, which will split $500 million in Early Learning Challenge grants to improve the quality of early-childhood education for low-income kids.

But for those children who can least afford to miss out on the learning advantages provided by quality preschool programs, the news about state-funded preschools is daunting. Let's hope the new year brings better economics times that help states get back on the expansion track.

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