Universal Pre-K Is Hard to Find and Harder to Fund

The states and cities expanding early education have wrestled with the question of what qualifies as "universal."
by | February 2017
(Photos by Shane Bevel)

You would be forgiven for thinking the building on the north side of San Antonio is a liberal arts college, or maybe a live/work space for artists. The walls are hung with paintings, there are spaces for dancing and there’s a community garden where farm-to-table foods are grown. But in fact it’s the North Education Center, one of San Antonio’s four new full-day pre-kindergarten facilities. The four centers represent a roughly $31 million annual investment by city residents who, in 2012, voted to apportion one-eighth of a cent of the sales tax toward expanding the reach and scope of the state’s existing half-day pre-kindergarten program.

City residents and then-Mayor Julian Castro saw creating full-day pre-K programs, especially in underserved neighborhoods, as a major step toward becoming a world-class city, one that could provide an educated workforce for major companies attracted by the city’s mild climate and low cost of living. The pre-K decision was based on a city task force’s report that looked at all aspects of education and found that a strong early education investment could yield excellent results -- not just for the 3- and 4-year-old children who attended, but for schools in general and the city at large.

San Antonio isn’t alone in its focus on pre-K. A handful of states are pumping funds into expanded pre-kindergarten programs, with varying degrees of success and commitment. Several cities have opted to fund a more rigorous pre-K program than state funding provides. But while universal pre-K is widely admired, the prevalence of well-funded and enriching programs is highly uneven across the U.S. In 2014, of the 40 states plus the District of Columbia with state-funded pre-K programs, only nine served more than half of all 4-year-olds in the state, and 11 served less than 10 percent, according to a report in U.S. News. Overall, only “a smattering of states have dedicated time and resources to expanding pre-K programs,” says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). “Even fewer have made it a priority through the years.”

Over the past half century, states’ interest in early education has waxed and waned. Although funding faltered during the Great Recession, states overall have been increasing their investments in pre-K programs during the past 20 years. The investments are generally popular with the public: Several studies have shown that pre-kindergarten can help kids from different cultural backgrounds and lower socioeconomic neighborhoods enter kindergarten on a level playing field with their more affluent, mainstream peers. At the same time, there has been flagging interest in some states as questions have been raised about how effective the programs are in the long run.

As more states and cities implement universal pre-K programs, they’re confronting basic questions of funding: Who will pay for it and how? But there are broader, thornier questions as well. Is high-quality universal pre-kindergarten an affordable and achievable goal? Do these programs actually accomplish what their advocates hope? So far, in the states and cities that have moved forward with pre-K programs, the answers seem to range from “absolutely” to “not so sure.”

Only three states -- Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma -- have what could be called truly universal programs in that they’re available to all 4-year-olds, regardless of parental income. The three states offer examples of the different ways in which the program’s funding source can affect its future.

The soundest and most successful of the programs is Oklahoma’s, which has been in place since 1998. Today, 75 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds are in a pre-K classroom. The program didn’t necessarily start as a crusade by local politicians and activists to expand early education efforts. It began in perhaps the only way it could have in a conservative stronghold like Oklahoma: with an anomaly in the state budget.

While combing over the way the state spent its money, lawmakers noticed that many school districts had half-day kindergarten, but were receiving money to cover a full day of school. Where was the overage going? “That extra money was basically subsidizing football teams in the state,” says Steven Dow, executive director of Community Action Project (CAP) Tulsa, an antipoverty agency in Oklahoma that partners with local school districts to help with their pre-K programs.

Something had to be done about the misuse of funds, and some lawmakers saw an opportunity to use the money creatively. After some wrangling and political maneuvering, legislators quietly expanded the state aid formula for education to include preschool children. They also wanted to ensure that the money was spent on a quality program, so they mandated that all pre-K teachers have a bachelor’s degree and that class sizes be capped at 20, with a student-teacher ratio of 10-to-1.

In the 19 years since Oklahoma embraced pre-K as part of its education system, the program has been considered a national model. Studies from Georgetown University and Science magazine, for example, found that children in the state’s program went on to outperform those who weren’t enrolled, no matter their background. Research has also indicated that the program has helped boost both pre-math and pre-reading skills among the children enrolled. The program’s success has helped spur some additonal investment. CAP Tulsa, for example, is piloting a program to expand offerings for children from birth to age 3.

Of course there’s room for improvement. Dow acknowledges that the 25 percent of kids who aren’t attending a pre-K program are likely the most vulnerable. “It’s a quandary on how we’re going to get them there,” he says. “There’s no reason that a 4-year-old in Oklahoma should not be in a classroom.”

If Oklahoma is leading the way, the other two states with universal pre-K are somewhat further behind. The issue in both places is funding.

Florida’s program had its genesis at the ballot box. In 2005 voters approved a universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds. Lawmakers at the outset allocated roughly $2,400 a year for each child enrolled in school. But that funding has remained stagnant over the years and is far below the national average for state spending on early education. According to the 2015 State of Preschool Yearbook, an annual report from NIEER, average state spending per child is nearly double that amount.

Barnett points out that many Florida residents may think the state has followed through on its mandate to provide a quality universal pre-K program. “If you don’t have a 4-year-old, you’d think they did it,” Barnett says, suggesting that parents of preschoolers have a different perspective. “Pre-K programs are often at a high risk of bait and switch.”

Georgia is also a story of funding gone awry, despite good intentions. In 1992, Georgia lawmakers wanted to create a universal preschool program that wouldn’t fall prey to any future state budget cuts. So legislators designated a portion of the state lottery, making it the first universal pre-K program to be funded entirely by state lottery money. Today, more than half of the state’s 4-year-olds attend one of the public preschools.

If that sounds like a success story, Barnett cautions against jumping to conclusions. While the funding is not subject to legislative budget pressures, a state lottery’s revenue stream is notoriously prone to boom-and-bust cycles. That means the revenue available for pre-K has had its ups and downs, and that can translate into the amount of money available to the program in any year. In 2011, the state was forced to implement changes to the program to keep it from going bankrupt, cutting the pre-K school year by 20 days and raising the cap on class size from 20 students to 22. A full 180-day calendar has since been restored, but the bigger classes remain in place, and low salaries have made it hard to retain teachers.

In addition to the states that have moved toward universal pre-K, a handful of cities have implemented their own programs as well. One of the most notable is New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on a promise of universal pre-kindergarten when he ran in 2013. Initially, de Blasio wanted to fund the program through a tax on the city’s highest earners, providing a guaranteed income stream as in San Antonio. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo insisted that the funding come from the state’s general budget. He came up with $340 million per year to fund the program for five years.

Despite its short track record -- citywide pre-K was launched in fall 2014 -- New York City’s program is largely regarded as a success. The standards are high: Teachers must have a bachelor’s degree as well as a state certification in early education. And the city is spending just over $10,000 per child, putting it among the  nation’s top programs in terms of investment. By just its second school year, the program had achieved its initial enrollment goal. State legislators from the city’s suburbs have asked Albany to expand the program to include their jurisdictions.

But not everyone thinks New York’s program represents the best approach. The disagreement touches on a national question regarding the way cities and states design their pre-kindergarten programs: Just what exactly does “universal” mean?

While most state programs call themselves universal, it’s really a catch-all term with a range of meanings -- from truly universal pre-K for all children regardless of parental income, to pre-K for all low-income families, to pre-K programs contingent on how much the state budget can afford that year.

From the beginning, de Blasio decided to make pre-K universal in the true meaning of the word, open to all 4-year-olds, even the children of the city’s wealthiest families. (In contrast, Oklahoma uses programs like CAP Tulsa to target those families who need early education the most, and San Antonio gives preferential enrollment to families experiencing hardship.) De Blasio’s decision was based on a study of Boston’s preschools, which are also open to all children regardless of family income. The study found that it wasn’t just poor children in the program who performed better on literacy and math tests. Middle-class kids did too.

That stands in contrast to other studies, however, which have found little evidence that universal pre-K actually has any benefit for middle- or upper-class children. “If it’s not broke, you can’t fix it,” says Barnett of NIEER. “If the kid has every advantage and is developing optimally, a great preschool program won’t hurt -- but it doesn’t fix anything.”

That’s why truly universal programs like New York City’s may not be the best use of taxpayer dollars, says Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a book on pre-kindergarten called Standardized Childhood. He has spent most of his career focused on how “collective actors,” like the government, impact the livelihood of children and families. Fuller cautions against a vision, like de Blasio’s, to create early education programs that are designed to help every single family. “Entitlements make good press releases,” he says, “but I don’t think we should promise things to middle-class kids unless they have proven benefits.”

As Fuller sees it, New York’s program has had to spread itself too thin to meet its universal goal and has not been able to put in enough efforts to target the families that need the program the most. His research team at UC Berkeley noted that in the fall of 2014, two-fifths of the slots in New York’s program went to families who earned above the median income. “They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but does it narrow gaps in achievement?” Fuller says. “And if you are making the argument [that it’s good for every child], you’re banking on a proposition that doesn’t really impact middle-class kids in the first place.”

While Fuller advocates for a less-universal, more targeted pre-K approach, others question the efficacy of preschool at all. Researchers at the conservative Heritage Foundation have concluded that all benefits of pre-K programs disappear by third grade and that the programs may “cause more harm than good.”

That’s a common criticism also leveled at Head Start, the federal program that offers education and other services for low-income families of small children. Established in 1965, it now serves nearly three-quarters of a million 3- and 4-year-olds. There have been a multitude of studies of the program over the decades. Much of the research indicates that while Head Start does help with educational attainment in the short term, those advantages eventually fizzle out. (One definite benefit of Head Start seems to be increased parental involvement. More parents of Head Start children report that they read to their kids, expose them to educational outings and use fewer physical punishments.)

Nonetheless, advocates of universal pre-K programs insist they can have a lasting positive impact on kids, if they’re implemented the right way. “If you look at some of the data and research following our kids through eighth grade, we’re seeing significant staying power in a number of areas,” says

Oklahoma’s Dow. “The truth is, until you have universal penetration, you’re going to have classrooms where kids don’t have that pre-K background.”

San Antonio, meanwhile, says it’s already seeing benefits from its program, which currently serves around 2,000 4-year-olds in the city, exceeding expectations. “An external committee watching our program told us not to expect outcomes this early on,” says Sarah Baray, CEO of the city’s pre-K program. “But they’ve been surprised by what they’ve seen already. Kids aren’t just playing catch-up. They’re leaving with a head start.”