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A Q-and-A with Pre-K Now’s Marci Young

Published:  December 8, 2010

Next year will mark the end for Pre-K Now, one of the largest groups in the country advocating for universal pre-k programs for 3- and 4-year olds. What does its closure mean for pre-k advocates and for early childhood policymaking in the coming years? Early Ed Watch talked with Marci Young, Pre-K Now’s project director, about the group’s accomplishments and struggles – not  to mention what work is left to be done. Here is a recap of our conversation:

We have heard that Pre-K Now will be phasing out over the next year. When do you close up shop?

We plan to be fully operational through 2011.  To give you a sense of the history, the Pew Center on the States [which runs Pre-K Now] selects issues based on research, policy and practice and considers what is the right moment to advance an issue. In 2001, Pew selected pre-k because there was research showing impact, bi-partisan support for its expansion and it was ripe for public debate. It was designed as a seven-to-10 year campaign to advance high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. Now we’re at the end of that cycle.

Pew is continuing to work on children’s issues as the campaign winds down. Pre-k is an important piece of the constellation of programs that work for children and we know there’s a lot of work still to do. Pew is transitioning to other issues. For example, there is the Pew Home Visiting Campaign, and the Partnership for America’s Economic Success continues to engage business leaders who are active and mobilized on children’s issues. But the Pre-K Now campaign will officially wind down at the end of 2011.

What do you see as Pre-K Now’s legacy?

Eight states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to provide voluntary universal pre-k for 4-year olds. And D.C. and Illinois offer it to 3-year-olds too.

In 2002, nationally, states spent $2.4 billion on state-funded pre-k. In 2009, that number was $5.3 billion. And in 2010, as the new Votes Count report shows, there was an uptick to $5.4 billion. It’s been a significant increase since we started. More than 450,000 children have access to high-quality pre-k that they didn’t have before.

And there has been an emphasis on quality. The Yearbook by the National Institute for Early Education Research, also funded by Pew, showed that in 2002 only eight states met NIEER’s benchmarks for quality. Now 18 of them do.

This has been done with bi-partisan support in the states. This has not been a Democratic or Republican issue. Both parties understand not only the value for children and families, but also that it is a way to ensure the economic stability and growth of the states over time.

What work is left unfinished?

Pew has invested significant resources – $10 million per year over the past nine years. And yet 75 percent of 4-year-olds and 85 percent of 3-year-olds still don’t have access to high-quality pre-k. Many states are still behind in meeting [NIEER’s] criteria for quality.

There is still a lot of work to do on data systems. The Early Childhood Data Collaborativehas worked to determine the essential elements of a quality data system. But there is still work to be done in terms of building the systems. These data systems will be important over time – we need to know where children are. States need the information to make investments in programs that work.

And there is a lot of federal work – the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for example. While there are options [in the current law] for school districts to use Title I dollars for pre-k, it is not used widely and still not known in many places. There is not a funding stream for pre-k at this time. This is the nation’s premier law for education. If we’re going to be serious about getting children ready for kindergarten, and not have them go into remediation, if we’re serious about them succeeding in school, we have to start at the beginning and pre-k is the way to do this.

What is the role of philanthropy in supporting early childhood and education over the coming years?

The philanthropic community has been one of vital importance. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development, and many others – they have helped to build organizations that didn’t exist. We now have the First Five Years Fund, First Focus, the Early Childhood Policy Alliance -- these didn’t exist before. Early Ed Watch didn’t exist before.

We always knew that pre-k was an anchor from which you could build going down or going up. There are a lot more opportunities to cover the spectrum from birth through to third grade. Pew has the Home Visiting Campaign. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has led an effort for reading by third grade. FCD has promoted the idea of a pre-k through 3rd grade continuum. It will be important for foundations to be continuing to be engaged in this.

One area the philanthropy community has been tentative in playing a role is in advocacy. But we have been doing this for almost 10 years, and we see incredible impact. I hope that we’ll see sustained investments in advocacy that is focused and strategic.

What will happen to Pre-K Now’s state partners?

We’ve been working with them to secure other partners at the state level. Some of them have broadened their scope, to look at birth to third grade, and we’ll help them to think about this work after Pew is no longer doing the campaign.

Which states would you highlight for elevating support of pre-k?

Tennesse has done an amazing job of building a broad-based coalition. Governor Bredesen is a great pre-k champion, and now Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican governor, has also made a commitment to sustain it. And I think that’s because of that broad-based coalition. In Alabama, the business community has been integral in advocating for getting their program in a better place. Instead of cutting, pre-k was flat-funded this year. In Illinois, advocates had significant strength in the face of budget cuts, and even without funding, they were able to guarantee some policies, like making sure that all pre-k children had access to transportation. And in Texas, they were able to give children of military families access to pre-k programs.

What could Pre-K Now have done differently?

In talking about the pre-k strategy early on, people got the idea that 3- and 4-year-olds were the only ones that mattered and that we didn’t like babies and toddlers, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Look at our home visiting program. But Pew’s approach has been to take a targeted approach. If you start from a laundry list of items, it can become immobilizing. And Pew set out to select an issue with objective evidence, bi-partisan support and one that is ready – ripe for that moment. So at that time, 2001, there were a few examples like Georgia and Oklahoma where universal pre-k had been done. And Pew said now is the time to make a difference on this issue.

The campaign became more nimble over time, partly due to budget realities. For example, with Preschool for All in Chicago, advocates were recognizing that you could make advances in universal pre-k by first offering it to low-income children.  

What about Votes Count -- these kinds of reports are valuable to reporters who need data on states’ funding and trends over time. What will happen to those reports? Will there be a Votes Count 2011?

I can’t say for sure. Votes Count usually comes out in the October time frame, though we delayed this year’s report because so much was happening with the elections and several states still didn’t have budgets finalized by then.

In the next year, we’ll be thinking about how to evolve our resources. The Pew Center on the States will be around and will continue to house our reports. NIEER will continue to put out its Yearbook.

There are some other organizations that hold data now, like the National Child Care Information Center. But who will be tracking funding over time? I don’t know.

A few notes on Votes Count this year [which was just published today]: It does give some hope that states are holding the line and even increasing pre-k in some cases. States like Michigan, which has such a rough economy, are still holding the line. And 26 states and D.C. increased funding in the last year. When policymakers face tough decisions they’ll see that this is a priority for building and sustaining the economy over time, that there are significant savings in remediation and special education.

But there are some states that don’t seem to see that. For all the bright spots, there are also dark spots.

Yes. Arizona. But other states, like Rhode Island, have increased funding. That’s how we get that small 1-percent uptick.

Which is why it will be so important to advance pre-k in ESEA. States have done their part. They need a commitment from the federal government with more direct inclusion of pre-k in ESEA.

Yet it is an incredibly difficult time for anyone looking for new resources for new programs. What gives you hope?

This campaign set out to do something very specific – and you have to remember, it was not an easy time when it started. It was September 2001, one of the most volatile periods in our country’s history, but Pew went ahead. Now we are at another crisis point. This country has seen the ups and downs of financial and social circumstances and yet we have seen support from both sides of the aisle. Pew had said it would make a 7-to-10 year commitment and it did so. It was able to catalyze support at an important time. It will do so again – it’s already engaged in a successful dental campaign and the home visiting I mentioned – and other organizations will keep working too. If the work is important, I’m convinced, it will get done.

CLARIFICATION 12/9/10:  Here are a few more details on the eight states and the District of Columbia that have committed to pre-k for all children. Three states – Oklahoma, Florida and Georgia – actually did not pass legislation but are effectively providing pre-k for all because of their open-enrollment policies and high parental demand.

CORRECTION 1/3/11: Pew has invested $10 million per year in Pre-K Now over the past nine years, not $10 million in total. By the end of the 10-year period -- the end of 2011 -- the organization will have invested $100 million in the cause, according to a Pew spokesperson.

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