Every year, the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University issues a report on the ‘State of Preschool.’ It examines state investments in early education programs and rates programs based on whether they’ve met certain criteria. This year, though, the report focuses on possible long-term harm to early education programs due to the Coronavirus.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the current and, I think, looming economic crisis pose [a] considerable threat to state-funded Pre-K,” says Steven Barnett, NIEER Co-founder and director. “In most states pre-K is discretionary, but it needs to grow and improve, not just hold on. It’s not like K-12, a mature program where every child’s entitled to go.”
The state lottery, not sales and income tax revenue, funds Georgia’s pre-kindergarten program. Still, the program didn’t escape cuts during the 2008 recession. The state shortened the school year by 20 days, cut teacher pay, and increased class size. Some of the cuts have since been restored.
Other states took similar measures, and Barnett said officials cut pre-K enrollment, spending, and quality standards across the board.
“The impact of those cuts continues,” Barnett said. “Pre-K’s long-term growth rate remains lower than before the Great Recession and some standards reductions have not been fully reversed. Concrete examples of this: Arizona’s state funding was never restored. Georgia’s class size increase to 22 was never rolled back.”
It’s unclear whether Georgia’s pre-K program will endure funding cuts due to COVID-19. However, the state legislature hasn’t approved the budget for FY2021, which starts July 1. That makes it hard for the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, which oversees the state’s pre-K program, to plan for the upcoming school year.
“We can’t award classrooms until we have a signed appropriations bill,” DECAL Commissioner Amy Jacobs said. “So [the lack of a bill] might delay that a little bit. So, we’re thinking through how we can do that, how our programs can begin to plan for Georgia pre-K for next year, and how parents can begin to plan.”
State lawmakers ended the legislative session early this year due to COVID-19 concerns. They approved an amended budget for FY2020 but will need to vote before July on the FY2021 budget.
“We’re a little bit hesitant to do anything that would be major until we have some type of idea of what the appropriation will be for next year,” Jacobs said. “So, we’re a little anxious about that and hoping to know something soon about what the timeline might be around that.”
To protect the quality of pre-K programs long-term, the NIEER report makes five policy recommendations: a new federal funding source for state pre-K programs; improved coordination of federal Head Start and local pre-K; make federal funds available for developing rapid response plans to crises like COVID-19; state pre-K programs should develop new policies to provide emergency services and educate young children remotely; states should develop long-term plans to improve pre-K programs.