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States Find Common Ground on Preschool's Value

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, while pundits are fiercely debating how the federal government can expand its role in early education (or even if this is a good idea in the first place), my interest is in what's happening at the state level.

I interviewed leaders in several states to ask what they thought about the federal proposal. It'll come as no surprise that leaders in red states such as Mississippi and Indiana are wary of the White House proposal to incentivize expansions of preschool, full-day kindergarten, and home-visiting programs.

But that isn't stopping those leaders from trying to start preschool programs in their own communities. For the ones I spoke to, the question of whether preschool is a worthy investment has been asked and answered—preschool has won.

Toby Barker, a Mississippi state representative and a Republican, is sponsoring a bill that would create the state's first publicly-funded preschool program. For years, lawmakers have paid "lip service" to the notion of paying for early-childhood education, in Barker's words. But he feels that there's a good chance of a program passing this year, because the state speaker of the house and the lieutenant governor have offered their public support.

"I think there's a conscious effort to make some fundamental, structural changes in how we do education in the state," Barker told me. Later on in our conversation he said, "this is something that's been long overdue in our state. We see the symptoms in our 3rd grade reading levels. We spend $36.9 million on remedial education at community college and university level. To be honest, those kids didn't get there overnight. Zero to 5 is a crucial time in the child's development."

I also talked to a lawmaker in Indiana, another state poised to implement a preschool program funded with state dollars. Robert Behning, another Republican representative, was frankly distrustful of what the feds may do around preschool. But when it comes to his own state, the value of early-education programs seems clear to him: "You can either invest it today and change the trajectory, or in 20 years or so, give or take a few years, we'll be investing in our state's penal institutions."

They're not alone in those sentiments. In Alabama, the governor has called for a major increase in preschool spending (The New York Times wrote about the state's preschool efforts in a recent article.) In Georgia, which has had a preschool program for several years, Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing adding enough money to the program to get it back to 180 days (the lottery-funded program had seen a few years of cuts because of lower-than-expected lottery proceeds.) In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder released a budget proposal that would increase state funding from $109 million this fiscal year to $174 million in fiscal 2014, and $239 million in fiscal 2015.

The debate over federal policy seems drawn along partisan lines that appear not to exist in the same way in the states. That's one reason why Steve Barnett at the National Institute for Early Education Research told me for my article that the president's proposal comes at an opportune time. If the federal government really does put money into this effort, it will support work that is already underway at the state level, he says.

Which is not to suggest that opinion at the state level is completely uniform. Conservative groups in Mississippi, for example, are organizing against state-funded preschool. They say that the programs will create government dependency, or turn children off to school later on.

Both those arguments seem not to be resonating with all lawmakers. Mississippi state Rep.Brice Wiggins, a Republican who was quoted in the Mississippi newspaper's article about opposition to preschool in his state, "takes issue with the 1960 argument, saying opponents want to keep Mississippi stuck in the past and deny that the vast majority of 4-year-olds already spend their day outside the home."

"How long do we have to continue to be in 1960?" Wiggins asked in that article. "The statistics are that 85 percent of the children in Mississippi are in some kind of child care program."

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