A new Pre-k Now report on pre-k finance highlights the increasing use of state school funding formulas as a vehicle for pre-k funding. When Pre-K Now produced a similar report in 2006, it identified only 6 states that funded pre-k through their state school funding formulas. The 2008 report identifies 11 states that do so, including some national leaders on pre-k.
This is good news. There are lots of benefits to using state school funding formulas to pay for pre-k. For starters, it's simple: States simply allow school districts and charter schools to receive state per-pupil funds for four-year-olds, as they already do for older students. Because state school funding formulas and the bureacratic systems to operate them already exist, this approach requires little in the way of additional bureacracy. That's particularly important as more states start thinking about scaling up relatively modest existing targeted pre-k programs: A grant program that works well when you're serving less than 10% of children--as more than half of states currently do--becomes a lot more unwieldy when you're trying to serve all 3- and 4-year-olds in a state. That's borne out by the fact that, of the top 10 states serving the most 4-year-olds in pre-k, 6 use the state school fudning formula to do so.
More importantly, funding pre-k through the state school funding formula sends a clear message that pre-k is education--not childcare. Routing pre-k funding through districts and charter schools also gives them resources and leverage to ensure that pre-k programs are aligned with early elementary offerings. Funding pre-k through the state funding formula, rather than keeping it in a separate pot of money, also helps insulate pre-k funding against cuts in difficult economic times, since legislators are loathe to make unpopular cuts in school funding levels.
Some pre-k supporters are understandably reluctant to embrace an approach that directs pre-k funding through the public school system, because they fear community-based pre-k providers will be excluded. But the emergence of charter schools, contract management, and other approaches for integrating diverse providers into the public education system at the K-12 level should offer a solution to these concerns. Pre-k Now notes that all the states that currently use school funding formulas for pre-k include community-based providers in their pre-k systems.
Early Ed Watch is pleased to see a trend towards using state school funding formulas for pre-k. As more states seek to expand existing pre-k programs or create new ones, this is a strategy they should immitate. By the same token, when states consider reforms to their school funding formulas, including pre-k funding in these formulas should be an important part of the agenda.
Photo by flickr user theritters, used under a Creative Commons license.