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Like taxes on sugary drinks, states find creative ways to fund preschool

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has a sweet idea to boost early-childhood education in his cash-strapped city.

In his first budget address, the freshman mayor proposed a 3 cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks that he says would generate $400 million over the next five years, more than half of which would be allotted to universal pre-kindergarten in the city.

“There is simply nowhere else to find this revenue. We all know we can’t raise property taxes again,” said Kenney in his March 3 address.

Philadelphia’s proposal to expand pre-kindergarten is just one of several ideas percolating among city and state leaders around the country during this legislative year. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 450 bills with some tie to early childhood are pending in 46 states.

At this early stage, it’s unclear how many of those proposals will be enacted into law. But if local and state lawmakers follow the trend of previous years, many places will see increased early-childhood investment.

Rise in spending

In a January report, the Education Commission of the States, which tracks state policy, found that state funding for preschool programs increased by $755 million between 2015 and 2016, for a total of nearly $7 billion. An increase was seen in 32 states and in the District of Columbia. The state increases in funding also appeared to be bipartisan, with 22 states that have Republican governors and 10 with Democratic governors allotting more money to early-childhood education for fiscal 2016.

“Not only has the funding level been going up every year, but we’re seeing additional states every year who were not funding pre-K at the state level starting to do that,” said Emily Workman, an analyst with the commission who co-wrote the report. The number of states that do not provide any state funds for preschool now stands at just five: Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Bipartisanship is on display in Minnesota, where Republican and Democratic lawmakers last week proposed the “A Better Chance,” or ABC Act, which would expand access to pre-kindergarten scholarships that low-income children could use at public or private programs. It would also fully fund the state’s quality-rating system, which ranks early-childhood programs, and home-visiting programs.

In 2015, the National Institute for Early Education Research said that Minnesota ranked last in terms of access for 4 year olds among the states that paid for preschool programs. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is planning to make early childhood a priority again this legislative year and is eyeing the state’s $900 million budget surplus to help pay for it.

Nonfiscal approaches

Program expansion is not the only policy prescription on the table. In Tennessee, lawmakers have offered proposals they say will help make the state’s program better. A bill pending in the House of Representatives would require the state’s prekindergarten program to offer teacher professional development, more parent-engagement programs, and a coordinated plan between preschools and elementary schools.

The bill is intended to address some of the problems raised in a multi-year study released in 2015 from Vanderbilt University. Researchers found that children who attended the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program started off school strong, but that by kindergarten, were generally indistinguishable academically from comparable peers who did not enroll in the program. By third grade, the children who attended pre-kindergarten were performing worse on some academic and behavioral measures than similar classmates who were never in the program.

In New Jersey, legislators are considering a bill to require every district to offer a full-day kindergarten program. Currently, about 20 percent of school districts do not. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat, also has submitted a bill that would expand free early education to 3 and 4 year olds in up to 17 additional districts. Thirty-one poor urban districts in the state currently have state-funded preschool as part of a settlement on an educational equity case.

Federal proposals

At the federal level, President Barack Obama’s proposed budget includes a $434 million increase for Head Start, for a total of $9.6 million. The money would be used to support expansion of Early Head Start, which serves pregnant women and children up to age 3, as well as the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships. Those partnerships link federal Early Head Start programs with private providers in an effort to increase the number of high-quality child-care slots. The increase would also be used to help more programs set up full-year, full-day offerings.

The budget also proposes small increases to special education programs overseen by the U.S. Department of Education that are aimed at infants, toddlers and preschoolers. And it would provide an additional $400 million in the upcoming fiscal year to the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program.

The continued focus on early-childhood education nationwide is gratifying, said Laura Sparks, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation, which has supported early-childhood programs in the city for 40 years.

“Cities and states are realizing if they want to invest in our future, this is one of the most effective and efficient ways to do it,” she said.

This story was produced by Education Week, a nonprofit, independent news organization with comprehensive pre-K-12 news and analysis. Read the original post here