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Education & Talent

State Leads on Early Education

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama called on state and federal legislators to invest in early childhood education. It’s not the first time he’s called for improving educational foundations for children.

While this support is important, the real action, as with most education issues, is at the state and local level. Unfortunately, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) recently found that, on average, state pre-k spending per child has decreased by more than $1,000 since 2001-2002. And if these decreases in spending are going to be reversed, you can be sure the solution won’t emanate from Washington – and not just because of partisan gridlock.


“Across America, this is like a presidential campaign - there is no ‘national election,’” says Billy Canary, the President and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama (BCA), speaking at an event held last month by the Economy League and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. “It needs to be put together state-by-state.”


That reality creates competition between states. The officials responsible for implementing programs and creating better outcomes are measured by how they fare against other states and regions; the benchmarking is naturally comparative.


And you might be surprised by who’s doing well.


Alabama, a model for quality


The list of states that are investing heavily in early childhood education might surprise you. While roster of the biggest investors includes progressive states such as New York, Vermont and California, amidst these usual suspects is an interloper – Alabama. Alabama’s investment isn’t as big as it is in some of these other states, but then again it doesn’t need to be. A significant reason for that is an almost-decade old relentless effort led by the business community.


In 2003, the BCA’s Billy Canary was part of a group that visited George Hall Elementary School in Mobile. “You couldn’t call it failing, you couldn’t call it left behind,” he says.


What it was was hopeless.


Back in 2003, their test scores were appalling; very few students could read, write or do math at grade level. The student body at George Hall is 99 percent African-American, 99 percent poor. As principal Terri Tomlinson has told the media, the demographics were used as excuses. (George Hall Elementary is now considered one of the country’s greatest educational transformation stories.)


For Canary, his visit was like a slap across the face. “I was born again that day,” Canary told a Philadelphia audience recently, a fitting way for the transplanted Long Islander to characterize his dream of transforming education in the Bible Belt. Canary realized that something had to be done. “When you can determine a child’s success by his or her zip code, you gotta change. [The visit to George Hall Elementary] convinced me that the business community could be more assertive on this issue.”


To state the obvious, Alabama is not seen as being at the forefront of educational attainment. However, thanks in large part to the efforts of Canary and others, the state is realizing success in reinventing its early childhood education system.


With Canary leading the way, the Alabama business community created the Business Education Alliance and the Alabama School Readiness Alliance. The idea was to blend the expertise of educators and businesspeople. Canary points out that education has long been the domain of people with specialized expertise; by bringing business concepts to the challenges of transformation Alabama is creating a new path to success.


The business community has shoved its way to the table, and isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers. Canary says he has enemies on the left and the right, but he believes business has every right to have a voice; Alabama businesses contribute $6 billion a year to the state economy and in the last two years have created 45,000 new jobs, which Canary says is worth $200 million to the state’s Education Trust Fund. If you ever meet him, you’ll realize he’s not likely to back down any time soon.


And why would he, when the business community is helping to drive Alabama’s unlikely race towards educational excellence?


The National Institute for Early Education Research assesses early childhood education programs in an effort to determine which programs are delivering high-quality education to three- and four-year olds. NIEER tracks ten standards of quality, ranging from the instructors’ education level to learning standards, from classroom size to whether meals are served. Alabama’s “First Class Pre-K” program scores a perfect ten on it. It is among the highest quality programs in the nation. Compare that to Pennsylvania, with three state programs, the best of which scores a seven out of ten and the others just a two and four.


Still, Alabama has a ways to go. For starters, the program isn’t big enough. It serves four-year olds, but not three year olds, and it currently accommodates a relatively small percentage of eligible kids. However, Alabama’s latest education budget includes a $10 million increase for pre-k programs. That puts the budget at $38.5 million for next year, which will enable the program to reach 13 percent of eligible students, up from nine percent. Great progress, sure, but not enough for Canary, nor for the children of Alabama. Canary’s goal is for Alabama pre-k programs to have $120 million in funding.


He’s indefatigable -- quoting David Ben-Gurion, Canary said, “to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”


Taking Denver’s mile-high success statewide


In the city of Denver, you’ll pay an extra 12 cents any time you buy something that costs $100. That’s .12 percent. People in the Mile High City have been paying these extra pennies since 2006, when voters approved a new sales tax to fund a pre-k program that provides tuition support for all Denver families with a four-year old.

Denver families have enthusiastically embraced the program – 80 percent of families with four-year olds participate. And the program is having a dramatic impact on student performance: A recent study revealed that students enrolled in the program went on to score almost ten percent better on 3rd grade reading tests.

So Coloradans know that access to quality pre-k programs can have a positive impact. Or do they?


Gloria Higgins is a wildly successful entrepreneur who is the President of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children (EPIC), a non-profit created to connect the Colorado business community to programs that improve outcomes for children. Colorado has a tremendous opportunity in front of it. Last year, the Colorado legislature passed Senate Bill 213, which strengthened the Colorado Preschool Program by expanding the number of slots available for at-risk children. Great news – except that the bill passed with the condition that it would not be implemented unless Colorado’s taxpayers approved a tax increase. Guess what? Didn’t happen. 


“Colorado is still kind of a cowboy state,” she says. “It’s a large land mass, but it’s really a collection of very local communities. We are a ‘local control state.’”


As she sat in a Center City conference room recently, Higgins seemed frustrated. Hopeful – you don’t launch four businesses without being seriously optimistic – but frustrated. The clock is ticking on SB 213. Colorado has five years to pass a tax increase to fund the bill; if they can’t, all those available slots for at-risk three- and four-year olds will disappear.


It’s no surprise that Higgins is smart enough to realize that campaigning for a tax increase might not get her too far. So she’s working on a “pull strategy,” trying to create change from inside individual businesses. She travels across Colorado to meet with business owners and leaders to convince them to implement family-friendly business practices, and to talk about the advantages of high-quality pre-k.


Today in Colorado, just over half of the state’s at-risk children are being served in high-quality early education. They have a roadmap to improve that number, but the roadmap is filled with landmines.


How Pennsylvania stacks up


Pennsylvania has been providing state-funded pre-k for nearly a decade. Back in 2002, then-Governor Mark Schweiker formed the Early Childhood Care and Education Task Force that set the roadmap for where Pennsylvania needed to go. This roadmap paved the way for Ed Rendell when he assumed the governorship in 2003.


Under Rendell’s leadership, Pennsylvania established both the Early Learning Investment Commission (ELIC) and PA Pre-K Counts. ELIC engages business leaders to advocate for access to high-quality early learning; Pre-K Counts provides quality pre-k opportunities to low- and moderate-income kids. Over the last decade, these initiatives have helped thousands of youngsters be ready to learn when they enter kindergarten. Today, 53,000 three- and four-year olds attend high-quality, state and federally funded pre-k programs in the Commonwealth.


However, advocates will tell you that it’s foolhardy to think this is good enough. Across the Commonwealth, just three out of ten kids are in high-quality pre-k programs. And just 18 percent of these kids are in publicly funded programs. In all, there are more than 125,000 three- and four-year olds eligible for state programs who aren’t being served. The impact of this shaky start plays out down the road. Consider that:


  • 60 percent of Pennsylvania fourth graders read below grade level;

  • 59 percent of eighth graders are below grade level in math; and

  • 16 percent of high school students don’t graduate on time.


These cold, hard numbers have advocates pushing to make voluntary, high-quality pre-k available to all children– at an estimated cost to the Commonwealth of $700 million. That’s equal to seven percent of the current state education budget and less than half the prisons budget. It might seem like a big number, but consider a recent study released by Ready Nation/America’s Edge, which showed that the Commonwealth’s economy would realize a return of $1.79 for every dollar invested in high-quality pre-k. That $700 million investment would quickly generate $800 million in additional goods and services and create almost 28,000 new jobs. In other words, you don’t have to wait a couple decades to see a return on an investment.


Right now, Pennsylvania ranks 30th out of 40 states, based on NIEER's standards. But Commonwealth citizens seem eager to help change this, even if they have to foot the bill.  A study commissioned earlier this year by the Pre-K for PA campaign showed that 63 percent of likely voters in the Commonwealth support increased funding for pre-k programs. And 58 percent support increased funding for pre-k even if it means raising their taxes.


It seems that, while many citizens are concerned about spending, the majority of them are willing to make smart investments.