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October 01, 2008

Dollars and Sense - Part I

Bill_1 The following is a two part post on the financial landscape of Voluntary Pre-K. It examines one of the many reasons that VPK makes sense for America. It is a sound investment that will not be affected by market volatility.

Pre-K teachers, researchers and advocates are not the only ones who think investments in Pre-K make sense. A Public Radio show, Weekend America, covered the movement last Friday. American RadioWorks' Emily Hanford has the story about how the support of business leaders is changing the debate about investments in education:

Hedge fund managers, CEOs and chamber of commerce presidents may not seem like obvious advocates for the expansion of social programs, but they've become perhaps the most enthusiastic and effective supporters of preschool. They see the issue in dollars and cents, and they're meeting in Telluride to hone their economic argument as government budgets tighten and policymakers face tough choices about what to fund. (Listen at the bottom of the post.)
Much of the argument against voluntary pre-k for all is around the “cost” of the program and who should pay that cost. I propose that the state governments have a financial obligation to its citizens to invest in the human capital of our children in order to secure the financial future of states. High quality preschools are not cheap. When you consider some key elements of the standards of quality as defined by the National Institute for Early Education Research, it is easy to see where all the money goes. Here are just a few indicators of a high quality preschool program:
 
  · Teachers hold bachelor’s degrees, assistants hold Child Development Certificates (CDA)

· Both positions are paid on par with public school personnel and they have specialized training in early childhood approaches

· Classrooms have no more than a 1:10 adult-to-child ratio

· Students receive vision, hearing, and health screenings

   · Classrooms receive all necessary special services, including special education and English language instruction. (Pre-K Now, High Quality, 2008)

The estimated costs of providing preschool services in a full day setting can range greatly, from $5700 to $9700 per-student per-year (Gault, et al, 2008).

Here in Virginia, Governor Kaine has pushed to expand funding for pre-k in our state. Virginia has funded its targeted preschool program for 2008 at $6000 per-pupil rate from the Lottery Proceeds Fund. Localities will be expected to contribute to this amount based on their composite index but not to exceed 50% (Virginia General Assembly, 2008).

The VPI program will be funded by Virginia Standards of Quality for 100% of at-risk students not served by Head Start for 2008 – 2010. But, if the state were to expand the program to become a state-wide voluntary preschool program, then who would pay? The simplest solution would be for the State to dig deeper and find the money.  However, this is not likely to happen, at least for some time. There are difficult funding issues including hiring qualified teachers, securing space, and the lack of interest in a local match of state funds prohibiting the state from funding preschool this way. There are a number of strategies that have been used by states, but the key is for state leaders to decide, “we can do this,” instead of hiding behind their constituents’ pocket books. Some of the creative solutions to funding pre-k around the country include public private partnerships, expanded use of Title I funds and other federal monies by localities, lottery revenues, gaming revenues, and “sin” taxes. (Stone, 2008) (pdf)

One creative approach was the Arkansas program that increased taxes on alcohol for a limited time (5 years expanded to 7) in order to jump start the expansion of preschool services (Stone, 2008). This approach changed the political nature of the decision by legislators to fund preschool. Once the services were in place, constituents did not want to lose the program and the legislature found the money to continue funding.

With the current economic crisis, states will have few options for expanding pre-k. But, given the evidence available to us, how can we afford not to?

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