Pre-K Budget Decisions in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Early Learning

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The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating the shortage of available and high-quality child care, contributing to learning losses and the potential “COVID-19 slide,” and shifting instruction to remote environments for K-12 and postsecondary institutions. While simultaneously facing significant budget cuts, policymakers across the country are making the most informed decisions they can with limited information — which may feel like aiming at a moving target.

One cost-effective strategy in the face of severe budget cuts is to focus on the early years. In addition to the importance of providing high-quality child care so parents and caregivers can return to the workplace, pre-K provides a strong foundation for students to be successful in school and life.

Historically, high-quality pre-K programs like the Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project and the Chicago Child Parent Center have demonstrated positive cognitive, social and health impacts over the long term for the children who participated. More recently, consensus research and a meta-analysis have continued to review — with an eye on high-quality programs — the effects of pre-K programs and built on these trends. Additionally, high-quality programs have closed achievement gaps and are most beneficial for low-income students and dual-language learners.

Our latest Policy Brief — “Exploring New Research on Pre-K Outcomes” — reviews research on pre-K programs from January 2018 to March 2020, generally adding to the notion that when done well, pre-K can have positive effects, both in the short and long term.

There has also been bipartisan support of state pre-K programs in recent years, with over $8.75 billion invested in the 2018-19 school year across the 44 states and the District of Columbia that provide programs.

Acknowledging the current crisis and budget shortfalls, policymakers might want to consider the lingering effects of the most recent recession. Adjusted for inflation, 25 of 39 states spent less per child enrolled in state pre-K during the 2018-19 school year than they did in the 2007-08 school year. This is a potential warning that perhaps even more significant cuts today will take years — even decades — to recover from, with subsequent quality in educational, social and emotional outcomes closely intertwined.

Recognizing the reality of state budgets, here are five questions policymakers can consider as they make difficult budgetary decisions regarding pre-K:

  1. What unique challenges do state funding mechanisms and delivery systems present? States that fund pre-K through a formula will face a different set of decisions than those that fund through annual appropriations, and states with mixed-delivery systems may encounter different policy challenges than those with primarily school-based programs.
  2. If cuts are made, whom are they affecting? A study of the last recession found that high-poverty districts’ budgets were hit the hardest, since they rely more on state funding — presenting a considerable equity consideration.
  3. How can systemic improvements to quality be preserved? Budgets will continue to be stressed over multiple fiscal years, but states may look for ways to continue the progress made in recent years to enhance program quality despite potentially scaling back services.
  4. If fewer pre-K slots are available, who is eligible to enroll? National data show that 40% of children from families with incomes of $10,000 or less do not attend a center-based program prior to kindergarten. During this crisis, states may consider temporary changes to eligibility requirements in order to target those most in need.
  5. How can states determine which services children are receiving? Collecting and maintaining child-level data is important for monitoring access and quality during and after the crisis. This can also help inform systemic improvements.

Education Commission of the States’ review of recent pre-K research reveals that 70% of studies found positive effects in the short and long term combined. As states look to rebuild, pre-K not only will help parents return to the workforce but also provide a strong return on investment for states and their economies.

Author profile
Principal at Education Commission of the States |

As a principal, Matt focuses on early learning issues. Prior to joining the Education Commission of the States, Matt worked for over four years covering early learning issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, earned his doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Denver and was a kindergarten teacher in a bilingual classroom for Denver Public Schools. When Matt is not working, he can be found snowboarding or trail running in beautiful Colorado.

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