Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

States have been generating legislative momentum on early education. And now, as their budgets grow healthier, they are investing more money in early childhood programs, according to Christina A. Samuels’ article in Education Week, “Pre-K Remains Hot State Policy Topic.”

Samuels reports that the “Education Commission of the States released a report in January that said 30 states and the District of Columbia increased appropriations for state-funded preschool programs for fiscal 2014, marking a second straight year of additional pre-K investments. State funding grew by $364.7 million, for a total of $5.6 billion, which represented a 6.9 percent increase over fiscal 2013.”

In addition, a recent article in Stateline, the Daily News Service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, agrees, noting, “Training students in the skills that industry needs and expanding early childhood education could be the big winners in education funding this year, if governors get their way. After years of state cuts to education, governors of both parties are presenting lawmakers with long wish lists for schools.”

Growing budgets, however, must be taken with a grain salt. As the National Conference of State Legislators has warned, “while the discussion of state budget surpluses is certainly welcome news for states, don’t put on your party hat just yet.” Because “In many cases though, any balances above what was originally budgeted are often immediately spoken for.”

Nonetheless, there are encouraging signs of growth. Education Week points to California where, “state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat has proposed a $1 billion expansion of the state’s transitional preschool program, which just started in the 2012-13 school year for students who missed the state’s kindergarten age cutoff. Mr. Steinberg wants the program to be available to all 350,000 of the state’s 4-year-olds.”

And on a smaller scale in Hawaii, “Democratic governor, Neil Abercrombie, has asked state lawmakers to approve a budget that would create 32 preschool classrooms, serving 640 children.”

In Michigan, early education has broad support, Education Week says.

“There’s no question [funding increases] would not have happened without the support of the business community,” Doug Luciani, the president and chief executive officer of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce said.

Education Week adds “Michigan allocated $65 million to its early-childhood preschool program for children from low-income families in the previous fiscal year. In his January budget address, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said he would like to appropriate an additional $65 million to eliminate waiting lists.”

States are also taking other actions. Bruce Atchison, the director of the Early Learning Institute at the Education Commission of the States, told Education Week that some states are also creating “a seamless ‘P-20’ [preschool to age 20] education continuum.” And some states are bolstering “early-learning quality standards.” In addition, “Half the states currently mandate kindergarten entry assessments.”

W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research) told Education Week that the funding increases follow several years of decreased investment.

The article adds that in contrast to those past cuts, “lawmakers in many states are currently debating not whether to fund early-childhood programs, but how much to give,” Mr. Barnett said. “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for example, has proposed a $1.5 billion increase over five years to provide universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a Democrat, is seeking state approval to tax high earners in the city in order to pay for preschool and after-school programs. His proposal would collect about $530 million over five years.”

In some cases, state legislators are making up for lost ground. “But in certain states, some of the increases currently proposed are ‘just getting states back to where they were,’” Barnett explained.

But not all states are making progress.

“Currently, nine states have no publicly funded preschool,” Education Week says. “For them, the issue may not be funding but philosophical opposition.” In Idaho, for example, some say, “preschool is a family’s responsibility. Other objectors say the state should focus on different educational priorities.”

Even so, Representative Hy Kloc, an Idaho Democrat, remains optimistic, saying, “I believe in taking small steps just to be able to convince people who have already had their minds made up.” He adds, “Eventually, with the groundswell I’ve seen, [preschool] will come here. I hope it’ll be this session and if not, I’ll be back with the same bill again.”

If states’ actions are combined with President Obama’s commitment to early education and care, the country could see widespread progress on educating its youngest children.