April 29, 2013

Universal preschool: President's priority faces challenges

Funding is elusive; existing programs are called inadequate.

By PHILIP ELLIOTT The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Barack Obama, Kathleen Sebelius, Chuck Hagel, Arne Duncan
click image to enlarge

President Obama speaks during a March Cabinet meeting attended by, from left, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The officials wish to improve availability and quality of pre-school programs, a task that is particularly difficult as Congress seeks to trim the federal budget.

The Associated Press

Among the 40 states that offer state-funded pre-K programs, 27 cut per-student spending last year. In total, that meant $548 million in cuts.

Money, of course, is not a guarantee for students' success. But students from poor schools generally lag behind students from better-funded counterparts and those students from impoverished families arrive in kindergarten less prepared than others.

In all, only 15 states and the District of Columbia spent enough money to provide quality programs, the researchers concluded. Those programs serve about 20 percent of the 1.3 million enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs.

"In far too many states, funding levels have fallen so low as to bring into question the effectiveness of their programs by any reasonable standard," researchers wrote.

Part of the reason for the decreased spending are the lingering effects of the economic downturn in 2008, coupled with the end of federal stimulus dollars to plug state budgets.

"Although the recession is technically over, the recovery in state revenues has lagged the recovery of the general economy and has been slower and weaker than following prior recessions. This does not bode well for digging back out of the hole created by years of cuts," the researchers wrote in their report.

Nationally, 42 percent of students -- or more than a half million students -- were in programs that met fewer than half of the benchmarks researchers identified as important to gauging a program's effectiveness, such as classrooms with fewer than 20 students and teachers with bachelor's degrees.

That, too, suggests problems for Obama's plan to expand pre-K programs, especially if Washington insists its partners meet quality benchmarks to win federal dollars.Obama's pre-K plan faces a tough uphill climb, though, with the tobacco industry opposing the tax that would pay for it and lawmakers from tobacco-producing states also skeptical. Conservative lawmakers have balked at starting another government program, as well. Obama's Democratic allies are clamoring to make it a priority.

 

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