In Washington state, for example, lawmakers passed a bill that would expand the state’s early childhood program for needy children from 8,000 to more than 45,000 students by 2018. At the same time, the legislature cut $1.6 million from the program last fiscal year and $10.4 million this year.
Arizona voters will decide in November whether to eliminate the state’s fledgling First Things First pre-kindergarten program, created by voters in 2006 and paid for with tobacco tax money, and use the money to balance the state’s bleeding budget.
Ohio cut its $23 million program to $11 million last fiscal year, which ended June 30, meaning 12,000 poor children no longer had access to early childhood education. Massachusetts cut $9 million last fiscal year, and New York cut more than $36 million.
For Georgia’s program, among the largest in the country, a $9 million budget cut this year meant eliminating half of the 500 workers who help the poorest families navigate speech therapy, kindergarten applications, and dental appointments so that the number of classrooms could grow from 82,000 to 84,000 children.
Marci Young, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Pre-K Now program, said early childhood programs are the key to helping the Obama administration achieve one of its main goals: improving persistently failing schools.
“When you’re thinking about turning around low-performing schools or making sure you’re helping close the achievement gap … you’ve got to start in the early years,” said Young.
She pointed to studies that show states see a $7 return for every $1 they invest in early childhood education, because children who attend pre-kindergarten are more likely to not need remedial education, to graduate from high school, to go to college, and to have higher-paying jobs that produce more taxes.
The key, said Jacqueline Jones with the U.S. Department of Education’s early learning office, is making states believe that early childhood education is part of the entire education package, rather than something they do only during flush times.
“If you see preschool as a warm and fuzzy thing you do for children or as baby-sitting, then it’s easy to cut,” she said. “But if we can meet the educational needs before kindergarten, we can save a tremendous amount of money in special education and remediation.”