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Tight budgets hit prekindergarten programs

Enrollment has dropped in some states

Cliff Owen/Associated Press

Prekindergarten is universally offered for 3- and 4-year-olds in Washington, D.C., where teacher Laura Amling helped a boy.

WASHINGTON - The expansion in public prekindergarten programs has slowed and even been reversed in some states as school districts cope with shrinking budgets. As a result, many 3- and 4-year-olds are not going to preschool.

Children from low-income families who start kindergarten without first attending a quality education program enter school an estimated 18 months behind their peers. Many never catch up, and research shows they are more likely to need special education services and to drop out. Children in families with higher incomes also can benefit from early education, research shows.

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Yet, roughly a quarter of the nation’s 4-year-olds and more than half of 3-year-olds attend no preschool, public or private. Families who earn about $40,000 to $50,000 annually face the greatest difficulties because they make too much to qualify for many publicly funded programs, but cannot afford private ones, said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

And as more students qualify for free or reduced lunch - often a qualifier to get into a state-funded prekindergarten program - many families are finding that slots simply are not available, he said.

In Arizona, a block grant that funded prekindergarten for a small percentage of children was cut altogether, although a separate public fund still supports some programs.

In Georgia, a drop in state lottery dollars meant shaving 20 days off the prekindergarten school year.

Proposed cuts in such programs have led to litigation in North Carolina and legislative battles in places like Iowa.

But even in states like New York, where state funding available for prekindergarten has remained relatively steady in recent years, fewer children have access to the programs because inflation has made them more expensive or districts can’t come up with the required matching dollars, said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education in Albany, N.Y.

Today’s climate contrasts with that of 2007, when Eliot Spitzer, then governor of New York, promised universal, public prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds. Other governors made similar commitments when the economy was stronger.

Far from meeting Spitzer’s goal, in about two-thirds of New York’s school districts, just 40 percent of 4-year-olds attend a state-funded prekindergarten program, according to the advocacy group Winning Beginning NY.

“I think it’s a moment in time when we have to really push harder,’’ Easton said. “Pre-K is proven to be the most effective education strategy that we can invest in. What it means is that because we failed to live up to our commitment so far to our youngest children, more of them will end up out of work or they will make less money than they would’ve otherwise and more of them will end up in prison.’’

Barnett’s institute has estimated it would cost about $70 billion annually to provide full-day prekindergarten to every 3- and 4-year old in America, including before- and after-care services.

About 40 states fund prekindergarten programs, typically in public schools or via funds paid to private grantees, for at least some children. That is in addition to the federal Head Start program, which is designed to serve the nation’s poorest children and offers a broader range of social services. In some places, state-funded prekindergarten and Head Start programs are combined.

Typically, state-funded prekindergarten programs have a narrower focus on education and cognitive development and serve a broader population than the federal Head Start program, which serves nearly 1 million children.

In Wisconsin, school districts that offer prekindergarten to 4-year-olds must offer it universally, and roughly 90 percent of districts do. But budget cuts have forced districts to make other changes like increasing the size of pre-K classes.

“Unfortunately, as the awareness and the need [for early learning] becomes more and more evident, our money gets tighter and tighter and tighter and more programs are not instituted in those areas,’’ said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.

Three states offer prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds, according to Pre-K Now, a decadelong project of the Pew Center on the States.

The District of Columbia goes a step further, with universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds.

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