- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Even as state legislators slice budgets for 2011, many lawmakers have crossed party lines to boost or maintain state spending on early child education programs, according to a report.

The upbeat preschool funding report was released from Pre-K Now, a project of the Pew Center on the States.

Still, 2011 promises to be another year for revenue-starved states to look for places — including early education — to reduce spending or demand the biggest bang for every buck.

“We were pleased to see that despite the widespread fiscal distress … leaders of both parties in a majority of states supported high-quality pre-kindergarten investments for fiscal year 2011,” said Marci Young, director of Pre-K Now.

The group’s researchers found that states plan to spend about $5.4 billion on pre-K programs in 2011, an increase of slightly more than 1 percent.

This shows that legislators “are interested in building their human capital,” said Ms. Young, noting that children who get high-quality early education are more likely to do well in school, stay out of trouble as teens, graduate from high school and flourish in the workplace.

An international report card released Tuesday showed that U.S. students remain stuck stubbornly in the middle of the world pack.

When 15-year-old students in 34 developed countries were tested on their ability to use their knowledge in real-world situations, the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, according to the Program for International Student Assessment.

American parents and leaders “need to recognize the reality that other high-achieving nations are both out-educating us and out-competing us,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He called for an urgent acceleration in student learning.

Government support for pre-K programs is seen as part of the solution, and Pre-K Now’s report found that 15 states and the District of Columbia managed to increase funding of such programs for the next year.

Eleven states maintained current funding levels, 10 states reduced their pre-K budgets by about $32 million in total, and 10 states do not have state pre-K programs. The remaining four states hadn’t decided on funding levels.

In the Washington metropolitan area, Virginia increased funding to its pre-K program by $4.5 million, bringing it to $67.6 million. The District boosted its pre-kindergarten program by $2.7 million, raising it to $9.7 million.

West Virginia and Maryland are expected to increase overall school funding, which will include the early education programs, the Pre-K Now report said.

In a separate report issued in September, two veteran education scholars warned that preschool programs were at high risk for budget cuts, and it was “imperative” that federal resources — about $22 billion in fiscal 2011 — be used efficiently and effectively.

For instance, the $7 billion-a-year Head Start program should be continuously evaluated by the Department of Health and Human Services to reward high-performing centers, said Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution and W. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Rigorous evaluation also is needed for the $1.7 billion Early Head Start program and the $250 million home-visiting program for new mothers and their young children.

Education is expected to be a major policy battleground for the next Congress and the Obama administration. The massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), essentially embodying the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, is set for renewal.

Critics of ESEA say that federal funding has increased without significant improvements in student achievement scores.

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