In a Senate Appropriations education sub-committee budget noteworthy for its protection of the state university system, up to 2000 slots in the nationally-lauded pre-kindergarten initiative, More at Four, would be cut following a funding reduction of $10 million or 6% in annual money.
While there are hopes that some of the cut would be absorbed in administrative savings, especially among the private and community sector providers that in any one year serve up to half of the children in More at Four, there is no question that unlike the cut of $5 million last year, this one would affect the number of children that can be served.
In order to be effective over the long term, pre-K classrooms must be of high quality. Quality is the key to success – to bringing children from low-income households and/or those at risk of later academic failure to a point where they are ready for K-12. That means qualified teachers, low class sizes, adequate resources.
Cutting the More at Four budget means that after administrative cuts have reached the bone, access to pre-kindergarten for more young children in need is denied. More at Four already has waiting lists approaching 2000 young children from low-income households. Add up to another 2000 to that list if the Senate gets its way.
Comparing the pre-K and K-12 budget
The Senate budget is unnecessarily harsh on pre-kindergarten compared to the reasonableness of its approach to K-12. The Senate budget cuts the K-12 budget less than the Governor (2.9% versus 4.3%) and avoids the Governor’s large flexibility cut that has generated estimates in some quarters of some 1600 more teachers losing their jobs. This is laudable.
But the Senate budget does not adequately recognize that education opportunity begins in pre-school or the importance of that opportunity. As is now well established, investing in young children via quality pre-K, especially those from low-income households, pays enormous dividends later. They earn more, they are less likely to fall onto welfare, to be arrested, to spend time in jail. All this is avoided state cost. Cutting budgets of early child education and services is false economy.
The cuts are rougher on pre-K when you consider that the Office of Early Learning will soon evaluate the outcomes of More at Four in a way unprecedented in this state. Included in the draft Senate budget provisions is a section that directs the Office of Early Learning in DPI to contract annual evaluations of More at Four attendees as they go through school to ninth grade and compare their performance with that of non-More at Four attendees. This will be a vital data collection and analysis effort that has the potential to inform the improvement of not just pre-K, but early elementary schooling as well.
Cuts to early childhood beyond More at Four
The Senate budget cuts to early childhood go beyond More at Four. In a shuffle of federal dollars, $16 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will be re-routed from the Health and Human Services budget to More at Four. It is not yet clear whether the $16 million in state dollars taken from More at Four in the switch will appear in the final Health and Human Services budget. The suspicion is that it will not, effectively leading to a cut of $16 million for our neediest families. It goes without saying that these are the people we should be protecting first. The recession has hit them the hardest.
Smart Start funding is cut by $5.8 million or 3% annually and also looks to lose another $5 million annually in funding for their local health initiatives for young and needy children. The expectation is that the remaining health initiatives money – some $3 million annually – will be used to leverage federal dollars to minimize health care initiative cuts.
It is vital that House budget writers remember that any cuts this year are cuts heaped on cuts and hence adopt a more balanced approach that fully appreciates the importance that investment in young children has for the state’s future.
The cuts of early childhood services are now more grave than before. In the revised HHS budget, Smart Start gets cut by $10 million annually (plus the $5 million in cuts for the Health Initiatives), while federal dollars from the TANF program are to replace $24 million in child care subsidy.
The Senate budget appears to be using TANF dollars, much needed in these hard ecionomic times to assist our neediest families, to supplant state dollars in critical services.