Blog: The Educated Reporter

Show Them the Money: Getting Creative on Funding Public Preschool

EWA recently hosted a seminar in New Orleans on early childhood education. We asked some of the journalists who attended  to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Leslie Brody of The Record in New Jersey. You can also find out more about early childhood education on EWA’s Topics page.

In the face of the enormous challenge of boosting public funds for preschool, advocates of early childhood education are getting creative.

Janis Dubno, of Voices for Utah Children, explained America’s first “pay for success” program for early childhood education. Private capital from J. B. Pritzker and Goldman Sachs enabled the Utah High Quality Preschool Program to plan expanding pre-K for over 3,500 children in the Granite area. The investors will recoup money for each low-income, at-risk child who avoids costly special education services through sixth grade. The state gets to keep some of those savings as well.

This project has an array of partners involved in determining which children need remedial help, making sure the pre-K programs are high-quality and calculating fair payments to investors. Dubno expressed optimism that “there is a big market out there for this’’ strategy.

Geoffrey A. Nagle, of the Erickson Institute in Chicago, talked about “school readiness tax credits” passed in 2007 in Louisiana. These allow small businesses to give up to $5,000 directly to a quality child care center or referral agency, and cut their tax burden by an equal sum. To qualify, programs must have at least two stars on the quality rating system.

Nagle said that the urgent need for innovative solutions after Hurricane Katrina allowed this idea to take hold in a place where usually proposals were debated so long that nothing got done. “It was the storm more than anything that allowed it to happen,” he said, calling the tax program Katrina’s “tiny silver lining.”

At the site visit to the impressive Kids of Excellence center in New Orleans, Karri Kerns of the advocacy group Agenda for Children called the tax-credit approach a “no-brainer”; it gives centers support and incentives to improve, while giving taxpayers a welcome sense of choice and accountability.

“You can dictate where your tax dollars go, and it goes right to children and families,” she said. Tax credits are also available to parents and providers to help defray the extra costs of attending and running high-quality programs.

Rhea Williams-Bishop, at the Mississippi Center for Education Innovation, said it was difficult to persuade lawmakers to finally invest $3 million of state money in preschool last year. Her group worked for two years to spread the word about the links between early brain development, long-term student outcomes and creating a skilled workforce.

She echoed several panelists in saying that getting the business community on board was crucial. Business leaders “helped galvanize the effort to finally fund early childhood in the state,” she said. Progress on public preschool in Mississippi  has been slow but still significant, she said: “If we move from the 10th sub-basement to 5th sub-basement, from the street you can’t see it.”

Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers in New Jersey, said states are beginning to invest in pre-K again after budget cuts due to the recession. He cautioned reporters to check pre-2008 spending before letting officials tout major increases because many states have not returned to past funding levels. “They’re digging themselves out of a big hole,” he said.



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