Pre-K: Is Everybody Ready?

Martha Shirk
October 22, 2001


In 2001, "back to school" meant an end to summer fun not only for the nation's K-12 students, but also for a record number of three- and four-year-olds enrolled in state-financed pre-kindergarten programs.

Pre-K, Growing Up Fast
With little fanfare, state expenditures on pre-K programs increased tenfold between 1988 and 2001, evidence of growing interest among state policymakers in ensuring that options for the formal education of children begin before kindergarten. About 10 percent of all three- and four-year-olds—more than 725,000 children—now attend pre-K programs around the U.S.

The terms pre-kindergarten and pre-K generally refer to state-financed voluntary education programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. Most of these emphasize the acquisition of language and literacy skills to maximize the likelihood that participants will succeed in school.

Forty-one states, as well as the District of Columbia, now invest some funds in pre-Kindergarten programs or state supplements to Head Start, a major shift from thirteen years ago, when only 28 states did. In 2001, about $2 billion in state money is being spent on pre-K programs, with another $858,000 in state money going into Head Start. Although evidence is anecdotal, more counties and school districts seem to be spending local funds on early childhood education as well.

Not Yet Universal
The increased public spending for pre-K programs heartens children's advocates. But they caution that the level remains far short of their goal of ensuring universal access to early childhood education.

Only three states—Georgia, Oklahoma, and New York—are committed to universal access. Nationwide, state expenditures on pre-K programs are still dwarfed by federal expenditures for other programs for preschool-aged children, including $6.2 billion for Head Start, $5.5 billion for child care block grants, and $4.4 billion for day-care subsidies.

"There's interest in universal pre-K, but it's not as widespread as we would like," says Helen Blank, director of child care and development for the Children's Defense Fund. "It's not yet a bandwagon issue."

Faith A. Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign, agrees. "I think there's considerable momentum, but I'm not sure it's acquired the status of a movement yet," she says. "Right now, only a handful of states are focusing on universal access. The others are providing state-funded pre-K generally for relatively small numbers of kids, and most are totally focused on disadvantaged kids."

The Politics of Early Childhood
The growth of public pre-K programs is just one expression of heightened interest among policymakers in all kinds of early childhood issues. That interest stems from several developments, including:

  • The increased national concern about school readiness;
  • Brain research that suggests the importance of early education, and
  • The continuing movement of mothers into the workforce.

The brain research seems to have been particularly persuasive to current policymakers. It demonstrated that a stimulating environment is essential to optimal brain development during a child's first five years of life.

"I remember exposing legislators to the brain research for the first time," says Julie Bell, education program coordinator for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "They were fascinated. It really convinced them of the value of pre-K education. And it hasn't been just the education people. The appropriations and budget people were paying attention as well."

Another factor contributing to the interest among policymakers has been the eagerness of private funders to invest in helping develop pre-K programs. The David and Lucile Packard, Ewing Marion Kauffman, Danforth, Lucent Technologies, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, have all made substantial grants in this area. And both Pew Charitable Trusts and the Early Childhood Funders Group, a foundation collaborative, will soon announce new funding for pre-K initiatives.

Last year's legislative sessions produced new pre-K programs or increased state funding for pre-K or Head Start in 18 states, according to the Children's Defense Fund. (Some states choose to put most or all of their early education money into supplementing Head Start, since one of its primary goals is ensuring school readiness.)

The legislative tally for 2001 isn't complete, since some state legislatures are still meeting. Already, there are signs that with the economy contracting, prekindergarten programs may be particularly vulnerable to cuts. Washington State has cut pre-K slots by several thousand in order to invest more in quality. In August, 2001, the Tennessee legislature refused to appropriate money to expand a prekindergarten pilot program. And a state budget cuts in New York have slowed the state's phased-in expansion of pre-K programs.

"We expect that K-12 funding will be relatively stable through a minor economic downturn, as long as state economies don't really plunge, but we'll probably see changes in higher education, and in pre-K, because the constituencies are less organized and vocal," says Bell. "It's very clear in state constitutions that the states are responsible for school. It's not as clear that they're responsible for school readiness."

What Is Universal Pre-K?
One challenge in building a true national movement for universal pre-K may be the lack of consensus about what both "universal" and "pre-K education" actually mean.

"To some, universal implies a free service that all children must participate in, similar to the public school primary grades," Anne W. Mitchell, an early childhood researcher, wrote in a recent working paper distributed by the Foundation for Child Development. "Another interpretation of universal is more like kindergarten, which is generally voluntary for children to attend, but mandatory for most school districts to provide? Universal can also imply 'access,' meaning that enough programs are available for all children whose parents want them to attend."

In addition, pre-K programs look very different from state to state. There is no standard curriculum. Some programs operate for just a few hours a day a few days a week, and others operate year-round, from dawn to dusk. Some are operated by community agencies, and others by public schools. Most states have specific pre-K educational standards, but only six require national accreditation. Twenty-nine states require teachers to have earned a teaching certificate, but nine states require only an associate degree in child development.

Without a federal mandate, the diversity of state programs is to be expected, says Wohl, of the Child Care Action Campaign. "We have 50 education systems, and we're going to have 50 different universal pre-K systems if it ever turns into a movement," she says. "It may be an inefficient way to do things, but it's the way we do things in this country, so we're going to have to make it work."

Advocates may some day wish they were looking at only 50 different pre-K systems. Kristie Kauerz, program director for early childhood for the Education Commission of the States, has noticed that many new early childhood education programs are locally initiated, rather than state-mandated.

"In many ways, it's more of a movement at the local level than the state level," she observes. "More and more of the funders are turning to the local level. We're still going to have to find ways to translate those local successes into policy at some level."

Parents: Not Pushing for Pre-k
Among the factors holding back the development of a movement for universal pre-K is an apparent lack of interest among parents.

"One of the things that's interesting about this issue is that interest in it is growing without a clamor from parents," says Blank, of the Children's Defense Fund. "They want their children to have a good preschool, but most don't see it as the government's responsibility."

One reason may be that the majority (about 5.2 million) of the nation's roughly 7 million three- and four-year-olds already attend preschool programs of one kind or another. The parents of these children may be satisfied with the options they already have, or distrustful of extending the state's reach into their young children's lives. And parents of children who don't now attend preschool may prefer that they spend their early years in their homes.

Although a unified early education system might make more sense administratively and financially than the current patchwork system, child advocates recognize that early childhood education programs must be responsive to the needs and desires of local communities and individual families.

"In policymaker circles, there's still a hesitancy to venture too far into universal early care and education because they don't want to step on families' toes," notes Kauerz, of the Education Commission of the States. "Until we really come to some sort of national values agreement on what we want to happen for young children, and who plays a role in that, I don't think we're going to see fast movement on this issue."




A free-lance journalist in Palo Alto, California, Martha Shirk has been writing about social issues for 25 years. She is the co-author of Lives on the Line: American Families and the Struggle to Make Ends Meet.