- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

ATLANTA | States are cutting hundreds of millions from their pre-kindergarten budgets, undermining years of working to help young children — particularly poorer kids — get ready for school.

States are slashing nearly $350 million from their pre-K programs by next year and more cuts are likely on the horizon once federal stimulus money dries up, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The reductions mean fewer slots for children, teacher layoffs and even fewer services for needy families who can’t afford high-quality private preschool programs.

One state — Arizona — has proposed eliminating its 5,500-child program entirely. Illinois cut $32 million from last fiscal year’s pre-K budget and plans to slash an additional $48 million this year.

“The overall impact is less access to a quality education in the early years at a time when parents have reduced capability to purchase that on their own,” said Steve Barnett, co-director of the institute. “Families are getting hit from both sides.”

Wealthier parents can afford to send their kids to private preschools, but children from poorer families will likely languish in lower-quality child care that doesn’t prepare them for kindergarten, experts said.

Thirty-eight states had pre-K programs serving more than 1.2 million 3- and 4-year-olds as of last year, the latest data available.

Mr. Barnett said just four states had made cuts by last year, but that number jumped to 14 this year and likely will be another 14 next year. The cuts come at a time when the demand for quality pre-kindergarten is at an all-time high as states struggle to improve test scores in early grades and give more students a better chance of getting a high school diploma.

In Washington state, for example, lawmakers passed a bill that would expand the state’s pre-K program for needy children from 8,000 to more than 45,000 by 2018. At the same time, the Legislature cut $1.6 million from the program last fiscal year and $10.4 million this year.

Arizona voters will decide in November whether to eliminate the state’s fledgling First Things First pre-kindergarten program, created by voters in 2006 and paid for with tobacco-tax money, and use the money instead to balance the state’s bleeding budget.

Ohio cut its $23 million program to $11 million last fiscal year, which ended June 30, meaning 12,000 poor children no longer had access to pre-kindergarten. Massachusetts cut $9 million last fiscal year, and New York cut more than $36 million.

For Georgia’s program — among the largest in the country — a $9 million budget cut this year meant eliminating half of the 500 workers who help the poorest families navigate speech therapy, kindergarten applications and dental appointments so that the number of classrooms could grow from 82,000 to 84,000 children.

Marci Young, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Pre-K Now program, said pre-kindergarten is the key to helping the Obama administration achieve one of its main goals — improving persistently failing schools.

“When you’re thinking about turning around low-performing schools or making sure you’re helping close the achievement gap … you’ve got to start in the early years,” said Miss Young.