Failed Promises For Early Education Programs

President Obama says he wants to make quality early education available to every child in America. But a new study shows state funding for pre-kindergarten programs dropped by over a half a billion dollars from 2011 to 2012. Host Michel Martin finds out more about the cuts and the consequences.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It turns out that the budget cuts that are affecting Head Start come at a time when spending on early childhood education is shrinking across the country. From 2011 to 2012, state funding for pre-kindergarten dropped by half a billion dollars - that according to her recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

The director of the institute, Steve Barnett, is with us now. Welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

STEVE BARNETT: Thank you, happy to be here.

MARTIN: Now, Steve, your group found that funding for early childhood education or for early education has gone down by $1,000 per child in the last decade. So that trend would have started before these specific budget cuts that we're talking about, these sequestered budget cuts. So what's behind that trend? Why is this happening?

BARNETT: Well, I think there are two things behind the trend. First, long-term, a tendency to favor enrollments over quality and not putting enough money and to keep quality going. And second, the Great Recession really devastated state revenues. And early childhood education is much more discretionary than other programs. It took a heavier hit. So over $500 of that $1,000 decline was in the last year.

MARTIN: From a practical perspective, do you have a picture of what this looks like, fewer hours of operation, fewer students, fewer supervisors? What's it look like on the ground?

BARNETT: Well, all of those things. So fewer students enrolled. If you look across Head Start, state-funded pre-K, local programs, before the sequester enrollment was already down at the very time eligibility was up because of the recession. And then programs had to make cuts in quality. So class sizes were larger. Teacher salaries were cut. Length of day was - length of the year might have been shorter.

Some programs probably moved from full day to half day. And at the state level, capacity to monitor program quality, evaluate, work on continuous improvement, that actually got cut first and hardest.

MARTIN: You know, in your research you found that not all states were actually cutting funding. Some states are actually increasing funding. Can you talk about that?

BARNETT: Absolutely. Most states cut funding, but some states moved in the other direction. Wisconsin's an example of a state that added 5,000 new slots for preschoolers during the recession. Right now, Governor Patrick in Massachusetts and Governor Snyder in Michigan have both proposed massive, multi-year increases in preschool, really bucking the trend. And a number of other states, Alabama's an example of the state that is pushing forward with modest increases despite difficult times.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about the - if you feel comfortable doing this, I'm interested in sort of the politics of this. I mean, are there - there are some issues in which there is a clear philosophical divide around certain policies. Some people think that certain things are important; some people think that they're not. Is there a philosophical divide around this issue, or is there simply states looking for places to save money?

BARNETT: Right. I find there's an informational divide because it's not a partisan issue. It's not a conservative-liberal issue. You have a Republican in Michigan and a Democrat in Massachusetts at the same time proposing big increases despite tight budgets, and they've done that by prioritizing preschool.

But I think some places just see it as - some people just see it as babysitting. They do not understand, as we heard in the last segment, that this is an important part of a child's education. It's important for ensuring that kids are successful in school.

Legislators, governors that understand that make it a high priority. Those that don't understand that and think it's just high-priced babysitting, they see it as a place to cut.

MARTIN: I'm going to bring our education correspondent Claudio Sanchez back in with us. He's here with us for this - for this part of our conversation, as well. Claudio, thanks for staying with us.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: You bet. I have a question about, you know, the politics of this. The president has really made a big deal about putting together $75 billion over 10 years so that, you know, states can expand preschool opportunities for kids, especially poor kids. The question is, of course, whether Congress is going to fund this over 10 years.

But it does show that - and the president has said this - that 38 states at the very least are very interested and concerned about the impact that cutting out or reducing opportunities for kids is going to have long-term on their educational systems. And I'm just wondering whether the research at Rutgers has pointed to what the long-term impact of having such a measly amount of money right now in the states going towards preschool education is going to mean in the long term in the middle of this whole debate over quality of education K through 12.

MARTIN: Steve, what about that?

BARNETT: I think that's a great question. The benefits that everyone talks about, the seven-to-one return that the president talked about the in the State of the Union is really avoiding the cost of failure that we're already paying. So if you look where the benefits come from, they're really cost savings because we're correcting problems that we have now from not investing enough.

When children in many urban communities start 18 months behind, at kindergarten, that sets them on a path to school failure. They're going to repeat grades. They'll need special education that they could otherwise do fine without. They're more likely to drop out of school, they're more likely to get involved with crime.

If we look at what costs us money, the criminal justice system is a huge expense. Some states are now spending more on prisons than they are on higher education.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, can I ask - I'm not sure which of you wants to answer this question. What is it about early education that is so powerful and that has such significant long-term effects? You know, why is that? Claudio, do you want to answer that? What is that people have found that makes this such an important part of life? Because I think there are a lot of people who will say I didn't go to pre-K, what's the big deal?

SANCHEZ: Michel, I think it has a lot to do with how we've raised the standards and expectations of children academically. It used to be that in kindergarten, it was all about play. You know, schools weren't asking kids to know their colors, their counting from one to 10 or to 20 or whatever. The expectations of children today academically are much, much higher, and so the expectation of children before they start school have to be higher.

And we all know that really, really good programs do teach those things, do prepare those kids so that they hit the ground running. When those things don't happen, that's when we see this endemic problem of kids not being prepared and never catching up, so that by third, fourth grade their reading skills are below par, and it's even harder for them to catch up after that.

MARTIN: Steve Barnett, thanks so much for joining us. Steve Barnett is the director of the National Institute for Early Childhood Research at Rutgers University. He joined us from their studios there. Steve, I hope you'll keep us up to date on this important research.

BARNETT: Oh, my pleasure.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Claudio, thank you so much for joining us.

SANCHEZ: Good to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, talk show host Wendy Williams' sassy banter and pointed interview style had made her a star of daytime talk, but she says that's not how she sees it.

WENDY WILLIAMS: Every fiber of me is just a girl from New Jersey who happened to have made it big.

MARTIN: Now she's opening up about her own dreams and demons. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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