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Preschool Group Says It Separates Advocacy From Data Collection

The National Institute for Early Education Research has released its yearbook outlining the status of state-funded preschool in the 2012-13 school year, noting that per-child spending rose slightly, and the number of children enrolled dipped that year. For the first time, that research, formerly sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and other organizations, has been federally funded through the National Center for Education Statistics. 

But, a few days before the report's Monday release, Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas E. Fordham Jr. Institute and an opponent of universal preschool programs, excoriated the U.S. Department of Education for its connection to NIEER, which advocates for expanded high-quality preschool options.

"Something unsavory is underway at the Department of Education and in the world of pre-school zealotry," wrote Finn, who in 2009 wrote "Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut," which questioned the validity of preschool research and argued for a system focused on the neediest children. "They seem to be merging—and in so doing they risk the integrity of our education-data system."

Finn argues that the NCES contract pays for NIEER not just to issue a data report, but to continue its advocacy efforts on the federal dime.

But W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER (based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.) said that Finn is incorrect: The NCES money is paying only for data collection, which was released in this report. In contrast, Barnett said, the  preschool yearbook is paid for by a grant from the Los Altos, Calif., based Heising-Simons Foundation, a seven-year-old organization that funds research in education and public policy, among other interests. 

A search of the foundation's grants for 2013 shows that Rutgers was granted about $261,000 to  support the yearbook. 

One benefit of the NCES partnership is that it will allow what has been proprietary data held by NIERR to be publicly available, Barnett said. It has also allowed the organization to report more information about states that do not have state-funded programs—10, as of 2012-13. 

"We have a proprietary system for collecting that kind of information that cost millions of dollars; it would have cost the government a fortune to try and replicate that," Barnett said. 

[UPDATE (May 14):  Finn, emailing me his thoughts from Seoul, South Korea, said that he is not surprised that the federal money to NIEER is explicitly designated for data collection. But, he added, "as the long-time head of a fund-raising-dependent nonprofit myself, I'm fully aware that all money is green and any money from any source ends up supporting all of the work of the organization one way or another."]

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