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Prekindergarten funding on the rise in U.S. cities, states

A pair of reports this month have highlighted a nationwide increase in funding for prekindergarten programs in cities and states – a trend that bucks K-12 education funding patterns, and which is not welcomed by all.

State funding for pre-K in 50 states and the District of Columbia increased by almost $755 million – a 12 percent jump over the 2014-2015 budget year, according to reports by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and Education Commission of the States (ECS) – both non-partisan groups. Overall, 32 states and D.C. raised their funding levels; 22 of the states have Republican governors.

The trend is four years old, but the most recent spike is the most dramatic. Only eight states decreased their pre-K funding, and only five states still don’t invest in pre-K programs.

Matt Weyer, an education policy specialist at NCSL, said the increase in pre-K funding is still far from what states are providing for K-12 students. On average, he said pre-K funding is still only about one-third of K-12 program funding.

However, he said pre-K programs have been benefiting from increased research.

“There’s a lot more brain science coming out about the benefits of early education and getting kids more access and how that can help set them up on a trajectory for better learning later on,” Weyer told AMI Newswire. “Research is what has driven a lot of the increase in attention and exposure.”

At the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), director Steve Barnett said the four-year-long trend toward more funding is somewhat misleading because the programs are still recovering from a “recession” of sorts. Indeed, a 2013 NIEER study found that pre-K funding fell by nearly a $500,000 in the 2011-2012 budget year, which at the time was the largest single-year decline to date.

“It’s a recovery rather than a great expansion - backfilling, catching up to where we were,” Barnett said in a phone interview. “But there’s also a recognition by both Democrats and Republicans that preschool can be an important investment and a way to improve the labor force. It’s a long-term investment, but research indicates it’s a more efficient use than say, simply more funding for K-12.”

Not all organizations welcome the trend. At the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, Education Policy Fellow Lindsey Burke observed three main problems with increased pre-K funding. 

First, she said some studies have shown up to three-quarters of four-year-old children are already enrolled in preschool programs – making additional funding potentially unnecessary. Second, a day care program established in Quebec in the mid-1990s that ended up showing many families that were already paying for private day care decided to enroll in the public program, which “crowded out” the private market.

Lastly, Burke pointed to the phenomenon of the so-called “fade out effect” – a pattern that several studies, including one by Vanderbilt University, have shown that the benefits of pre-K programs often decrease once a child enters a lower-quality K-12 system.

“These are things to keep in mind for states that are spending more taxpayer dollars on pre-K,” Burke said. “Not only is it expensive and potentially unnecessary, but you could also end up crowding out private providers - which ultimately will limit choices for families. {Pre-K) is just not living up to proponents’ promises.”

Likewise, Lisa Snell, education director for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, said the trend toward more and more funding for pre-K programs incorrectly assumes that more access and funding is necessary.

“Reason Foundation continues to argue that the demand and need for access to preschool is overstated (around 70 percent of 4 year olds currently enroll) and that it is unclear that pre-K is the best investment strategy as compared to other education investments,” she said in a statement to AMI Newswire.

Snell also said the benefits of early education “tend to be overstated,” and that, oftentimes, pre-K programs are inappropriately benefiting from multiple sources of revenue that go uncoordinated with taxpayer money.

“We believe early education often over-promises lasting benefits that go beyond what the research shows for positive impacts in kindergarten,” she said. “The effort to improve quality in pre-K should focus on programs we are already fund, rather than investing billions in new dollars to continue to expand or start new pre-K programs.”

Much of the trend across the country has been driven by cities. Just last month, Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to enact a soda tax, which was specifically sold to voters as a revenue-raiser for prekindergarten programs. The Philadelphia tax is a 1.5-cent-per-ounce levy on all regular and diet soda drinks, and is expected to raise about $90 million. (The only other city to have a soda tax is Berkeley, California – the idea has been tried and failed 30 times on various city and state ballots in recent years, including multiple failures in Philadelphia.)

Barnett, the NIEER director, said cities are actually leading the way more than states. He ticked off several other major cities where the idea of a tax to fund pre-K programs has either passed or is being considered - San Antonio, Seattle, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Dallas.

“These are big cities that are moving ahead, and they’re not in any one part of the country,” he said. “This is how American education traditionally has made traditional change. When comprehensive high school was first introduced, it was by the big cities, and it’s been a long time since then that there’s been a big idea come along.”