Pre-K payoff

North Carolina just countered Tennessee’s findings on pre-K fadeout. Here’s the difference, according to researchers.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Policymakers across the country have debated how to build effective public prekindergarten programs.

A new study suggests that Tennessee might want to up spending and look toward its neighbor to the east if it wants to get prekindergarten right.

This week, Duke University released research showing that North Carolina’s investment in public pre-K programs led to better outcomes for its students. Its researchers found that the positive effects — including higher test scores, less grade retention, and fewer special education placements — grew or held steady over the years.

At first glance, the findings seem to contradict those released last year by Vanderbilt University researchers about Tennessee’s public pre-K programs. That study’s authors concluded that by third grade, the students who attended pre-K actually fared worse academically, calling into question how much return states and communities can expect from their investments in early childhood education.

“Money does matter,” said Helen “Sunny” Ladd, a co-author of the Duke study. “It’s important that (it’s) used well. But if something is important, like preschool, it seems to make sense to spend money on it and keep improving it.”

In fact, the Duke results echo what Vanderbilt researchers Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey have said all along: that pre-K’s promise can only be realized if programs are high-quality and work in tandem with other parts of the education system. They theorized that a lack of support before children turn 4, as well as the low-performing elementary schools that those children attend after pre-K, might be to blame for the Tennessee’s program’s disappointing results.

The Duke study looked at more than 1 million North Carolina public school students born between 1988 and 2000, and how their counties funded two early education programs: Smart Start, which focused on ensuring that infants through 4-year-olds entered school healthy and ready to learn, and More at Four, a pre-K program.

 By the end of fifth grade, children living in counties with average levels of early education funding saw a gain of more than six months of reading instruction and more than three months of math instruction, regardless of poverty level. The children also had significantly higher mean math and reading scores in grades three, four and five, and their odds of needing special education during elementary school were lower.

Ladd said several factors might put alumni of North Carolina’s pre-K programs at an advantage: Smart Start served as a foundation for pre-K, and North Carolina historically has had higher-performing elementary schools than Tennessee, which might help sustain pre-K gains. Tennessee also spends about $500 less than North Carolina per pre-K student, up to $10,000 less per classroom.

“The effectiveness of preschool undoubtedly depends both on what happens before and what happens after,” Ladd said, adding that it was impossible to separate out the effects of Smart Start on North Carolina students.

“There’s evidence from lots of studies across the country that preschool is important,” she said. “What the Tennessee study suggests is that maybe Tennessee needs to keep working on their program.”

early childhood

Mike Pence passed up a big federal preschool grant. Now Indiana could have a second shot

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Four years ago, then-Gov. Mike Pence created an uproar when, at the last minute, he nixed Indiana’s chance for up to $80 million in federal dollars to develop the state’s fledgling public prekindergarten program.

But later, as On My Way Pre-K grew, Pence acknowledged that the federal grant could be “a good fit.” And now, Indiana could have another shot at those dollars.

The application for the next round of the federal preschool grant was expected to open Tuesday. Early childhood education advocates, who are pushing again to expand On My Way Pre-K, are watching to see if Indiana’s current governor, Eric Holcomb, will pursue the funds — which could be a key piece of making pre-K more broadly available across the state.

“It’s high time our state caught up with the rest of the nation,” said Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Indiana, one of the state’s most influential supporters of early childhood education. “Surely federal grant funding could make a significant impact in providing much-needed high-quality pre-K for low-income 4-year-olds in our state.”

Holcomb, who has been supportive of pre-K expansion, hadn’t decided whether Indiana will apply for the federal grant, a spokeswoman wrote in an email last week. His office was waiting to see the details of the grant’s requirements in the application.

Some of the political fight around the expansion of pre-K in Indiana has died down since Pence took his stand, in part because of the progress of On My Way Pre-K. But Holcomb will likely still have to weigh similar tensions: How much should Indiana invest in pre-K, and how quickly?

The federal Preschool Development Grant could be used to craft Indiana’s game plan for expanding early learning opportunities, by conducting a statewide needs assessment and coordinating existing federal, state, and local programs that serve children from birth to age 5, according to the grant description.

In that way, this version of the grant is significantly different from the one Pence walked away from. In the past, in other states, the grant funded thousands of new and improved pre-K slots or created new programs.

Pence had initially backed out of the federal grant application in 2014, saying he had concerns about “strings” that could come with it. “When it comes to early childhood education, I believe Indiana must develop our own pre-K program for disadvantaged children without federal intrusion,” a statement from his office said at the time.

Two years later, Pence changed his stance, reaching out to federal authorities to ask about the next opening for the grant. Pence said he felt the state had built the supports to further expand the program. He explained that, in pushing for Indiana to launch a public pre-K program, he had promised lawmakers to “not expand the program until we saw evidence that it was working.”

But one expert says the federal grant still could have helped Indiana take steps to improve pre-K quality, particularly with instruction and curriculum, and that the infusion of federal dollars wouldn’t have necessarily forced a fast expansion.

“Indiana really missed out on the initial opportunity to focus on quality, to start small and then put some dollars in place over subsequent years to be able to build on that and expand,” said Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy at New America, a think tank.

In the new round of this grant, up to 40 states and territories will receive awards between $500,000 and $10 million to conduct a statewide needs assessment, develop a strategic prekindergarten plan, maximize parental choice, and improve the quality of programs. States have until Oct. 15 to apply, and the funds — almost $250 million in total — would be awarded in mid-December.

On My Way Pre-K, the state’s program for 4-year-olds from low-income families, currently serves about 4,000 children in 20 counties. About three years into the program, state lawmakers roughly doubled the amount of funding for the program to $22 million this year. That doubled the number of students served each year and expanded the program’s reach to more parts of the state.

The city of Indianapolis, with corporate and philanthropic matching dollars, is spending $40 million over five years to fund pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. Indiana also has federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs that last year served about 14,000 children from low-income families, and the federal Child Care and Development Fund program helps nearly 32,000 children receive care.

Advocates say they want to see continued expansion with a focus on quality. Early Learning Indiana, an advocacy organization, estimates that about 160,000 children ages 3 to 5 years old need some type of care because their parents are working. Just a small fraction of all preschool-aged children in Indiana — about 15 percent — are enrolled in high-quality care, the group said.

While Indiana has made strides toward improving early childhood education, parts of the state still lack access to high-quality preschool, said Early Learning Indiana director of public affairs Jeff Harris.

“Indiana has done a nice job of really focusing on quality,” he said. “It’s a matter of growing it strategically and responsibly to make sure we have those high outcomes.”

Correction: August 15, 2018: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the grant application process opened Tuesday. That was the original schedule, but it was then pushed back.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.