Pre-to-3: A new state agency, support for young readers among top early learning bills this spring
Legislatures are also weighing proposals to fund more full-day kindergarten programs and sustain services initially funded with federal grants.
This latest Pre-to-3 column looks at major early learning legislation moving through state legislatures this spring — as well as some bills that are falling by the wayside. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
A new state agency devoted to early learning in New Mexico, a plan to reduce kindergarten tuition costs in Colorado and tax credits designed to encourage teachers to specialize in early-childhood education are among the legislative efforts related to young children that have either been enacted or are still moving through statehouses this spring.
In New Mexico, newly elected Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has named early-childhood education a priority at a time when the state is working to respond to a court decision last summer declaring the state has failed to provide an adequate education, particularly for poor and minority students.
Matt Weyer, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, called the law creating the Early Childhood Education and Care Department a “well-designed, evidence-based” plan. The department will oversee programs currently spread across several agencies, such as family support, early-childhood special education and home-visiting programs.
“They did a great job of thinking through all the interconnectedness of education, health and human services, and how those services make it out to the most disadvantaged children,” he said. “I do think that bill provides a strong foundation and it provides time for it to be implemented.”
Governance related to early-childhood is also an issue in Hawaii this year, but in that case, the question of where the authority over state-funded pre-K programs should lie is dividing Hawaii Democratic Gov. David Ige and lawmakers who argue that the state’s Office on Early Learning should have "administrative authority," over pre-K, not the Hawaii Department of Education.
In Idaho — which does not have a state-funded pre-K program — House members introduced a bill in the Education Committee that would have directed the state education agency to create a new school readiness program, a policy they said is favored by business leaders. But the bill promptly died in committee, with some Republicans saying the state shouldn’t spend tax money on a play-based program and that the education budget is already tight.
Some Montana lawmakers were also proposing to direct more money to that state’s relatively young state preschool program — a priority for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. But because a Republican-sponsored bill included sending state funds to private providers, the plan was controversial. Bullock was also pushing for a separate state early childhood department, which was also defeated in committee.
Movement toward full-day kindergarten
A legislative season rarely comes and goes without lawmakers in some states proposing changes to the way kindergarten — which is often still not treated like the other 12 grades — is either funded or delivered.
In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis is pushing for a $185 million plan to fund full-day kindergarten across the state and eliminate the tuition that families pay to have their children attend full-day instead of half-day programs. Districts that already cover the cost of full-day programs would save money or use those funds for other purposes.
“We are pleased that the Joint Budget Committee has recognized the enormous impact that free, full-day kindergarten would have in our state, and that legislators are introducing a bill to make this a reality,” Polis said in March when he introduced the plan. “An investment in our children is an investment in our future.”
Legislators are also considering proposals relating to full-day kindergarten in California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has included a one-time $750 million appropriation in his budget to help districts build facilities for full-day kindergarten, with lack of space often being a barrier.
While most policy discussions regarding kindergarten focus on ensuring more children have the opportunity to attend full-day programs, the question of whether the grade should become part of a state’s compulsory education system has also surfaced this year. In Michigan, Rep. Bill Sowerby, a Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require 5-year-olds to attend school, making the case that such legislation is necessary because the state’s law requiring students to be proficient readers before moving to 4th grade kicks in this fall.
Improving 3rd-graders’ reading skills is also the focus of a bill in Colorado that would outline specific instructional requirements for young readers, as well as expectations for those who teach reading. The bill is intended to help schools accomplish the goals of the 2012 Reading to Ensure Academic Development (READ) Act, which also focuses on ensuring students have strong literacy skills before entering 4th grade.
‘Bold first statement’
Newsom’s overall policy proposals related to young children have perhaps received more attention this year than those of any other governor. Amounting to $1.8 billion, the plan was a “pretty bold first statement,” said William Sperling of Child360, a Los Angeles nonprofit that provides coaching and professional development programs for early educators. “[Early-childhood education] has been wanting this sort of attention for a while.”
In addition to the $750 million to help districts expand full-day kindergarten programs, the plan also includes almost $124 million to enroll more low-income 4-year-olds in the state preschool program, $500 million for both child care facilities and quality improvement efforts, and $78.9 million in both federal and state funds to expand home-visiting programs for families in the state’s public assistance program.
The governor’s office will release a revised budget in May, reflecting updated revenue projections, which could impact how much the state ultimately spends on any of these proposals.
One challenge the governor faces, Sperling said, is that the birth-to-5 age range encompasses such a “diverse range of services for kids,” from parental leave and home-visiting programs for new parents to pre-K and kindergarten. Organizations within the state’s early-childhood community are working more collaboratively than they once were, but with the prospect of new funding “let’s see now how united the field is,” Sperling said. “It’s easy to be united when there is no money.”
The role of federal grant funds
California is also one of 46 states and territories that received one-year federal Preschool Development Grants (PDG) earlier this year, which are intended to be used to assess early care and education needs for children from birth to age 5 and to build on existing programs that use a mix of school and community-based providers.
As states conduct their needs assessments, the legislative season, Weyer said, gives state education and early education agencies an opportunity to make a “wish list of what would improve their systems.”
Next week, when the National Institute for Early Education Research releases its annual state pre-K “yearbook,” one of the topics the report will cover is the way states — such as Montana — have been using the past round of federal PDG funds to expand or improve early-childhood education systems and how they sustain those services once the funds expire.
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