Who pays for early education: A look at funding

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Unlike public school K-12 schooling, which is funded mostly with local and state taxes, early care funding is complicated, and spots are not guaranteed for all families who want or need care.

Preschool access and policies are driven largely by federal dollars and programs, primarily Head Start. States distribute these dollars, and may or may not add money of their own.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., tracks preschool spending nationally and issues an annual report.

NIEER’s most recent report, covering the 2007-08 year, showed that 12 states offered no state-funded preschool. On the other end of the spectrum, in one state, Oklahoma, virtually every child can start school at age four due to a combination of federal and state dollars. Pennsylvania is in-between – after years near the bottom of the pack.

Of the 38 states with state-funded programs, according to NIEER, 33 of them increased enrollment in 2008. But in just eight states and the District of Columbia did a majority of four-year-olds attend some kind of publicly funded preschool.

In 2007-08, Pennsylvania enrolled 6 percent of three-year-olds and 11 percent of four-year-olds in public preschool programs. This ranked the Commonwealth 28th among the 50 states in terms of access to preschool for four-year-olds and 8th for three-year-olds.

Nationwide, funding for state pre-K from all sources, including fees paid by parents and other private sources, was more than $5.2 billion, a 23 percent jump over the previous year. But with the national economy in dire straits, NIEER warned that since pre-K spending is largely discretionary, unlike K-12, it is particularly vulnerable to cuts. NIEER predicted lower spending this year, even with $44 billion in federal stimulus funds promised to the states for education-related programming.

Overall, Pennsylvania ranked 8th in terms of state spending on its preschool programming – a huge jump in a short time. In 2002, Pennsylvania spent virtually none of its own money on early childhood.

Private funding – that is to say, parents – accounted for 72 percent of funding for preschool programs across Pennsylvania, according to the report.

For low-income parents, eligibility for programs varies. Head Start is free to parents who meet federal poverty guidelines, which currently tops out at about $22,050 for a family of four. Under the state’s Child Care Works program, subsidized care is available to families with a maximum yearly income of $44,100 for a family of four, or twice the poverty guideline.

Pre-K Counts, targeted toward children who are at risk of school failure for a variety of reasons including lack of English proficiency and special needs, has higher income cutoffs – three times the federal poverty guidelines, or $66,150 for a family of four.

According to NIEER, Pennsylvania in 2007-08 paid $3,742 per child for early childhood services. That contrasts to nearly $11,000 per child in neighboring New Jersey, which is mandated under court order to provide services to three- and four-year olds in 30 of the state’s poorest cities.