Pre-K in President Obama’s Budget Proposal

Here it is, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: pre-K in President Obama’s FY14 budget! The budget was released on Wednesday with quite a bit of accompanying paperwork, but the basic takeaway is that the President proposed $75 billion over 10 years for the Education Department to match state efforts to expand access to high quality preschool. The program would be first focused on 4-year-olds below 200% of the federal poverty level (about $46,100 for a family of 4), though states would be incentivized to expand to middle-income families once these children were served. The plan would be funded through an increase in the tobacco tax – from $1.01 per pack to $1.95. I’ve written on the details of this plan along with our director at Preschool Matters, the blog of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

There’s been a lot of coverage of this proposal from several major media outlets, particularly as details of the tobacco tax emerged. If you’re looking for more information, I recommend several writers who know their early ed well. Fellow policy wonks at the New America Foundation explored early learning in this budget as well as key questions still out there on education in the budget more holistically. Joy Resmovits at the Huffington Post was one of the first journalist to predict early education in the State of the Union, so she’s followed this from the start. Check out her coverage on the response from the tobacco industry as well as why the plan won’t appeal to all states universally. Dylan Scott at Governing places this proposal in political context.

My thoughts – and only my thoughts! – on this proposal is that a tobacco tax is going to be a fight, and there are legitimate concerns about how to develop sustainable funding from a tax meant to drive down consumption. That being said, I’m eager to see how this conversations plays out at the national level. The President has elevated pre-K as a national priority, and this is a big moment in the field. By proposing the plan as a consumption tax and making it deficit neutral, I’m cautiously optimistic that the debate can center on the merits of the proposal and less on shouting over spending. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Wonkblog wrote on the sustainability question last week, bringing up some important concerns. Economist Tim Bartik has a great piece up in response explaining that the budget numbers the federal government releases are constrained by certain rules, but looking at the long-term savings of high quality pre-K makes the case that a tobacco tax for pre-K would be sustainable, and wroth it.

WSJ Falls Behind on Head Start Coverage

Obama in Pre-K Classroom
“President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., Feb. 14, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)” via

Since President Obama’s State of the Union speech declaring his goal of preschool for all young learners, there’s been no shortage of misinformed, factual inaccurate, and/or just downright dishonest hackery. I won’t enumerate those pieces for you, since most are neither worth the time nor the page clicks, but the Wall Street Journal’s February 25th Head Start for All is particularly notable both in its scope of misinformation and its prominence among media coverage (let’s not get me started on the condescending tone used to diminish one of the biggest education reform proposals in recent memory). From the very start, its frames pre-K as some sort of Bizarro World policy suggestion: “Government failure is hardly new, though President Obama has given it a characteristic new twist: A program’s proven inability to do the things it is supposed to do is now an argument for expanding it.”

Luckily, I don’t have to deconstruct this piece, because several more eloquent and even-tempered experts in the field have already offered their expertise. Here for your edification is a quick look at the responses offered. All are worth reading in their entirety to bring you up to speed on the realities of this debate.

Larry Schweinhart, President of the HighScope Education Research Foundation, wrote a letter to the paper (which is currently being shared at the blog of the National Institute for Early Education Research) challenging their conclusions on the Perry Preschool Program study, which he directed. While noting that the Perry and Abcedarian studies are not the only studies support the effectiveness of pre-K, Schweinhart notes Perry is significantly more cost-effective than the editorial suggested:

“…[T]he Perry Preschool cost per child was well below the $16,000 per child per year or more you said it cost. In current dollars, it cost $11,107 per child per year, about the same as the cost per K-12 student in the U.S. The Perry Preschool program is not that hard to replicate—and have its return on investment widely realized. We simply need to insist on reasonable program standards – qualified teachers using a proven curriculum, partnership with parents, and regular evaluation…”

Since SOTU, Tim Bartik, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, has used his blog to respond to misinformation in the media and make clear what research really does indicate on pre-K. Bartik has worked for years on the economics of pre-K and is one of the researchers on the well-regarded Tulsa Pre-K Program study.  Bartik addressed a number of issues with the WSJ editorial, including even the fact that the headline’s very suggestion – that the President is seeking to expand Head Start to all children – is rejected on face by just reading the White House fact sheet. Bartik expresses a similar concern to Schweinhart that the evidence of pre-K success does not come from simply a few “boutique” programs, but rather a more robust field of research that has been ignored in the WSJ editorial. The entire blog is a truly wonderful and thorough deconstruction of a truly flawed editorial. Bartik also followed up a few days later with a response specifically to the WSJ’s editorial’s contention that a study of pre-K in Georgia (by Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research) was misinterpreted and presented as “unduly pessimistic.” His blog sets the record straight on what’s become an often-cited study as Georgia is closely examined in this policy debate, but also serves as a great primer in understanding the difficulty and nuance of studying the effects of pre-K in a large population.

Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, also responded to the misrepresentations of the WSJ piece in a letter that was printed by the paper. Guernsey also holds that the President’s proposal was misrepresented by labeling it an expansion of Head Start, noting that the plan calls for the federal government to empower and support state efforts on pre-K at a time when “[a]round the country, good preschools want to expand and improve.” Guernsey built on these points in a blog post, calling for a substantive debate on this policy proposal and sounding the sobering alarm that:

“If we continue at our current rate of progress, “it will take more than three decades to reach the point where even 50 percent of young children are reading proficiently at the end of third grade,” according to the 2012 Child Well-Being Index published by the Foundation for Child Development….Most developed countries are already well-ahead of the United States in making public investments in early care and education. We cannot afford to keep stalling.”

The National Institute for Early Education Research (where I am employed full-time) released a policy report specifically meant to tackle misunderstandings and misinformation in ongoing debates around the President’s proposal. Pre-K has a rich research base, with long-term studies of effectiveness going back almost half a century as well as more recent studies of the effects of state-funded pre-K programs. This report is not a response to any one media report but rather seeks to frame the pre-K debate in solid research. Steve Barnett, NIEER Director, explains:

“Both science and public policy are best advanced based on impartial analysis of all the available evidence. No single study stands on its own, much less provides the definitive answers to policy questions on its own. This requires that scientists and policymakers consider all the evidence rather than simply select a few studies that fit their preconceived notions. The Obama administration’s new universal pre-K proposal first announced in the State of the Union address comports conclusions drawn from a full review of the evidence, just as one would hope.

Critics of the pre-K proposal in the ensuing debate have not followed the same approach. Their attacks on the President’s proposal have been based on a few selected studies considered in isolation and when convenient, misinterpreted.”

A federal plan to expand pre-K raises a lot of important questions on what, how, who, and at what cost. But it will be impossible to have a productive conversation about education young learners for the future without setting the facts straight.

Early Ed in SOTU: Personal, Professional, Political

I’ve been following rumors of a federal early education plan just as closely as most early ed policy wonks over the last few weeks in a largely professional capacity: what is the Center for American Progress proposing in their plan? How closely do we think it will reflect what the White House is cooking up? Is this really going to make it to the State of the Union, the annual “big show” of American politics? What does our work over at NIEER tell us about costs, quality, and access, and what of that may be making it into this proposal? I started at NIEER in 2009 as a Graduate Research Assistant while working on my Masters in Public Policy at Rutgers, taking an interest in early education as an issue of social policy and a way to fight poverty. I remember a grad school friend telling me that it seemed like a field with a lot of rapid growth, and she could not have been more right – in the years since, we’ve seen growth in the number of states providing state-funded pre-K; we’ve seen media coverage of NIEER’s State of Preschool Yearbook, the project on which I spend most of my time, increasing; and we’ve seen federal interest in early education beyond just targeted programs through Head Start in the form of the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge. I’m thrilled to see President Obama talking about early education in his State of the Union, elevating in to the level of a national priority, and I’m looking forward to reading more details in the coming days and weeks, analyzing the impact this could have for children, and watching so many good advocates press to get this program we so badly need.

But, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to take a bit of a personal detour this evening, when – admittedly – my emotions are running a bit high. As the saying goes, the personal is political, and when your profession is policy, I suppose the personal becomes professional by the transitive property. In the end, the three all gets muddled, but what I mean is that while I had no real concept of the importance of early education just five years ago when I was in college, it’s become one of the most engaging issues of my life since. I am not one of those esteemed professionals who can say I’ve been in this field for 30 years, because I don’t even have 30 years of living experience, let alone work experience. That being said, I’m thrilled to be in a generation of young policy analysts who see early education as an important equity issue and the path to a better America.

I’ve mentioned before that I had an interesting educational path: Catholic nursery school, to first one then another local Catholic school until 8th grade (because private schools, like traditional publics and charters, vary widely in quality, and the second one was deemed “better”), then a STEM Magnet school, then a small Catholic college, then grad work at the very-large state university of New Jersey. I didn’t really have any interaction with the traditional public K-1 system, largely because my parents had concerns about the quality and safety of the local schools were we lived (Yes, this points to larger issues in the funding of education via property taxes. Yes, it is an issue that weighs heavily on my mind in terms of future moves. Yes, it is an issue for a different blog!). But one of the most interesting things I learned since entering the early education world was while bringing myself up to speed on some of NIEER’s work when I started there: Who Goes to Preschool and Why Does It Matter? This policy brief could basically be called a classic and it’s a great primer on the early ed situation, though it’s from 2007. This is when I learned that enrolling a child with pre-K is highly correlated with mother’s level of educational attainment, which is one of the many factors contributing to socioeconomic status. Specifically, it was the graphic on page 8 showing that in 1991, only 59% of mother’s with a high school diploma enrolled their 4-year-olds in pre-K while that jumped to 80% for “college or more.” This particularly struck me: that’s my cohort, that’s my data! I was enrolling in Community Nursery School for several days per week in 1991, thanks to my mother and her high school diploma. This was just another  moment in a series of moments in which I understood how much my parents had sacrificed to send all three of us to top-notch educational programs from the start, and how statistically surprising our outcomes are (by this June, we’ll be three for three of Masters degrees, all achieved immediately after college. While this does defy trend in education coming from two parents without college degrees, if you knew how awesome my parents were, this would not really be a surprise).

But this drove home to me the fact that the opportunities I’ve had to challenge myself and excel should not be a statistical anomaly, and that the correlation between parent’s education and child’s education only continues a cycle of economic outcomes that slow our progress as individuals and as a nation. How helpful it would have been for my parents not to have to pay that tuition for pre-K! My mom stayed home with us; her choice to enroll us was out of concern that we socialize with children our own age and get the all-important soft skills that make successful students down the line.  The fact that by 2005, these enrollment rates for the children of high school educated mothers was still only at 63% (lagging behind the 87% of moms with college or higher, but better than the 55% for moms who did not finish high school) means there is still so much work to do – families who can afford pre-K still don’t know for sure that they can find quality education in their area that works for their schedules, while low- and middle-income families face those issues, compounded with very real calculations on  how to balance the needs of their children and what they can afford.

There will be political conversations now as to what happens next with this proposal, as details emerge, advocates weigh in, and politicians take sides. I’m optimistic that progress toward a federal early education program will break through the strict ideological boundaries that are too often drawn in our modern politics. The President didn’t wade far into his plan this evening, but his words were direct and meaningful:

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

The more I learn in this field, the more I understand how lucky I was to have that chance that put me on a strong path to education. I feel privileged to work every day to push for quality programs that give other kids that opportunity.

As a past child, as a current researcher, and as a (hopefully) future parent: early education is just too important to leave to chance.

Preschool Down South

I’ve got a new post up with a colleague at my organization’s blog, Preschool Matters. A few weeks ago, we posted “Preschool for Y’All: The Rise of Early Education in the South,” which looked at trends in the provision of state-funded pre-K in the South, a region which has far outstripped other U.S. regions in this area of education. Today’s follow-up, “How Did Early Education Become a Southern Goal?” is a quick overview of some of the trends in public policy in the South that may have led to this rise.

I worked on these blogs for a while. It’s been quite clear for some time from my work on the State of Preschool Yearbook that the South as a whole stands out; what was much less clear was why. I started thinking more seriously about this over the summer, talking anecdotally with a few early education advocates in the South and doing some reading not just of the policy briefs noted in the blog, but also whole books. In particular, I was intrigued by Universal Preschool: Policy Change, Stability, and the Pew Charitable Trusts by Brenda Bushouse (in part because by project was initially funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts) and her attention to the policy formation processes in a quite notable states, including a few in the South.

Everything I learned, and developed more questions about, cannot be summed up in these two blog posts. I think my persistent question still out there is this: what can Southerners – whether natives, or educators, or transplants – say about how Southern culture may have contributed to a focus on early childhood education? I’m eager to hear what anyone has to say on this topic, whether here or over at the original blog psots.

UPDATED: Voting in Storm Aftermath: New Jersey

UPDATE, 11/6/2012: New Jersey’s Lietuetant Governor has extended deadline for email/fax ballots after county clerks were overwhelmed: “In a directive issued this afternoon. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has instructed county clerks to accept applications for mail-in ballots by fax or e-mail through 5 p.m. today. Clerks will process those applications throughout the week, and ballots must be returned by 8 p.m. Friday…’It has become apparent that the county clerks are receiving applications at a rate that outpaces their capacity to process them without an extension of the current schedule,” Guadagno said. ‘If a displaced voter can vote by other means, they are urged to do so.'”

There’s also a lot of talk on and already a bit elsewhere that this vote by email system is being used for “convenience” by some voters, not just those who are displaced. Generally, I’m hearing a lot of disapproval in the tone of those reports–and it’s somewhat warranted, I understand, because this system is rife for abuse in electronic hacking and didn’t have enough time to get security up.  But two points: 1. Clearly, people LIKE voting from their home, so let’s try to work on that in the future. 2. What exactly constitutes a “displaced” voter is unclear. Obviously, those people living down the shore who are foraging through rubble to find family heirlooms are displaced–they’re addressed floated away, they’re staying with friends or in shelter. But what about someone like me, a refugee from the cold front coming in while I still don’t have power? I happened to have a friend in my town I could stay with, so I voted as usual, but what if I stayed near work, in a different county? I’ll reflect more on lessons learned after voters have been cast, the important thing here is to get out the word that electronic voting has been EXTENDED.

If you’ve been without power like me for several days or – much, much worse – suffered the loss of your property or a loved one in the aftermath of Sandy, you may have lost track of time. But tomorrow is, in fact, November 6, and the end of this long, long election season. I’m a bit of a political junkie, but the storm has left me without the energy (and really, without TV or internet, the resources) to keep up with recent campaigning. That not withstanding, I’m excited to pop into my polling place tomorrow and cast my vote; it’s only my second presidential election, so I’ll be voting come hell or high water – and we’ve had a little of both here in New Jersey. Blog is being update as more information comes in.

If you don’t know where your polling place is, Google has an outstanding voter resource page to let you look it up; if you’re in an area impacted by the storm, it can also help you find out what the next step is if you’re polling place has been affected, including where you may be able to go if early voting is an option and getting to your polling place will be tough. If you don’t have regular internet access, you can text WHERE to 877877 – it will ask for your address, and send you info as to where you can vote and if your polling place has changed. I gave this a whirl–system is fast, accurate, and provides polling place address and hours.

Big props to New Jersey for making things easier for those of us hit by the storm. In addition to your local polling place, you also have the opportunity vote early in your County Clerk’s Office. Use that Google map to find out where you can go.

Unable to get anywhere because of the gas situation, or because you’ve relocated to someplace with heat/power? New Jersey has provisions in place to allow you to vote via email or fax (!!). The full details are available in policy jargon here; according to the NJ Elections website, you can receive a ballot this way up until 5 PM TOMORROW (Election Day), and must submit it by 8PM TOMORROW (Election Day, November 6). The state also encourages first responders who are still out fighting the good fight to use this means.  UPDATE: Big thanks to the awesome folks at TurboVote who have this page with instructions on voting my fax/email, including the application and where to send it by county. It seems that emailed ballots need to be scanned into something and sent away, which could be tough if you don’t have power, but a friend may be able to help, or your job may let you do so there. Also consider your local public library – New Jersey State Library is gathering information on open library locations, which could be a good starting point.

No power to vote electronically, and unable to get to where you need to be? A displaced voter (read: you’ve left home to stay in shelter/with friends and family, and can’t get back) can vote by provisional ballot at any polling place in the State. The directive from the state has certain safe guards in place to ensure your votes get counted, so grab some idea and take along with whoever is hosting you tomorrow when they go to the polls.

If your polling place cannot be used (flooding, power outage, trees down), the state has directed county officials to contact people via newspaper, “reverse 911” call system, and noticing at the site. If you’re concerned, start by checking out your county’s website as well as the League of Women Voters’ website, both of which are supposed to have this information. Their New Jersey chapter is providing some outstanding resources on polling place changes, as is this article from My Central Jersey.

I’m incredibly proud of how New Jersey has responded to the challenges of this storm, including ensuring residents who have been through so much can get to vote. I know for a lot of people, the election has taken a back burner, but please consider any and all of these options.

Folks, are there are scenarios which haven’t been covered here? And if anyone has info to update this for New York and Connecticut, please share, along with links to the info!

App to find your polling place. If you text WHERE to 877877, it will ask you for your address, and then send you your updated (if necessary) polling place. The system is being tweaked and updated, so please be patient and keep on checking to make sure you know if your polling place changes.Feel free to contact me with any questions related to voting.  

UPDATE for NEW YORK: Apparently the Governor signed an Executive Order basically saying that you can vote with a provisional ballot in any polling place you can get to, not just your usual one. Governor Cuomo’s order, like that in New Jersey, puts the burden on the polling place to get your ballot where it has to go, but I’d be prepared to show ID so they can figure out where it has to go.

Anyone tried these methods? Looking for feedback.