A few short years ago, universal preK was all the rage. States large and small were jumping on the bandwagon, candidates for state office were running a platform that called for early childhood education, and we honestly believed that preK was moving from glorified babysitting to true, honest-to-goodness instruction for our youngest learners. The federal investment in Early Reading First helped the cause, but in general we saw that one couldn’t truly improve elementary school academic proficiency without establishing some core building blocks in those years before kindergarten.
Then along came the economy. Before the bottom fell out last fall, states had already been feeling the pinch on their budgets and their good intentions for universal preK. Some plans were scaled back, some scrapped altogether. We all knew it was an issue that warranted our education attention, it just wasn’t necessarily one that would get our top billing. And in the current economic environment, only the top billing got our dollars and focus.
The good folks over at PreK Now (now part of the Pew Center on the States) have released a new study looking at the governors’ preK proposals for the coming fiscal year. Leadership Matters: Governors’ PreK Proposals Fiscal Year 2010 provides some interesting information on the future of early childhood education. Among PreK Now’s highlights, looking at gov proposals:
* 14 governors are proposing to increase investment in early education
* 13 govs are proposing to level fund early education programs, preserving current investment levels
* The governors of Alaska, North Dakota, and Rhode Island are proposing preK efforts where there are currently none
* Total proposed investment in FY2010 ECE is 4 percent greater than last year’s actual spending
On the negative, we have to hope that state legislatures will fully fund these efforts. And on the truly negative, the governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina are all proposing cuts to their current preK investments. Penny wise and pound foolish, particularly in this day and age.
So there is room for hope, but room for concern. At our highest levels of state leadership, we are seeing the value of ECE. And in many states, we are converting that realization into real policies and real dollars. Unfortunately, in some states — including those like Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina that are known, fairly or no, for a high-quality education — cuts are coming. And we all know that once cuts come, it gets harder and harder to restore them. There, we have to hope that the legislatures will intervene and at least continue existing funding.
For those states that are looking to create new ECE programs, increase current funding levels, or even stay the course, there becomes one very important question: How do we deliver return on investment on early childhood education? How do we make sure we have moved beyond glorified babysitting and are really focusing on instruction and academic and social preparation? How do we ensure that quality preK is measured and assessed for having true quality?
Last week, Sara Mead and the folks over at New America Foundation worked to answer that question, providing some guidance, some data, and some color commentary on the issue of quality preK. At a forum held last Thursday, New America took a closer look at the lessons that can be learned from data-driven early interventions for our youngest learners. The forum can be watched on the Web, courtesy of New America, here.
The playback on the forum is worth checking out, and not just because it features the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation (a group Eduflack current advises) and its work with the DC Partnership for Early Literacy. As our governors look at continuing their bets on early childhood education, it is valuable to see how evidence-based, early childhood literacy instruction can be effective, particularly with low-income three- and four-year olds. The DC Partnership for Literacy is working with some of our most at-risk students. If it can demonstrate true ROI when it comes to preK, it is offering something that every governor — particularly those in Alaska, North Dakota, and Rhode Island who are starting up early childhood efforts — may be able to really learn from. When it comes to the future of preK, we all need to focus on quality, ROI, and its contributions to closing the achievement gap. We need these investments to count for something.