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Coronavirus Recession Places Prekindergarten Programs at Risk, Researchers Warn

Experts say prekindergarten is critically important for students from economically disadvantaged families, those who are learning English as a second language and others.EXPAND
Experts say prekindergarten is critically important for students from economically disadvantaged families, those who are learning English as a second language and others.
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State budget shortfalls associated with the COVID-19 economic slowdown could put state prekindergarten programs at serious risk, according to a report released Wednesday.

In the report, researchers with Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research warn that cutbacks to state-funded pre-K programs could have long-lasting effects, not only on educational equity but also on states' workforces decades down the line.

"If we miss investing in them now, there's not a second chance," said Steven Barnett, the institute's director and one of the report's authors.

In its 2019 State of Preschool Yearbook, researchers at the institute predicted that more students will become eligible for means-tested prekindergarten programs across the country as parents lose jobs or experience pay cuts as a result of the COVID-19 recession.

Texas' state-funded pre-K program was a major focus during the 2019 legislative session. House Bill 3, a massive overhaul of the state's school finance system, included money for full-day pre-K programs for low-income and other qualifying students across the state. In districts like Dallas ISD, in which full-day pre-K is already in place, school officials may put that money toward other early-learning priorities.

Texas education officials say they don't expect interruptions in funding for the pre-K expansions outlined in the bill. The state includes money for pre-K in the same funding formula it uses to fund K through 12, meaning there's no single line item in the state budget that's directed toward pre-K.

While it's true that state pre-K programs whose funding was included in their states' funding formulas fared better during the last recession than those in states where that wasn't the case, Barnett said a deep budget shortfall could still affect preschool programs.

Barnett pointed to Oklahoma, which has one of the strongest pre-K programs in the nation. During the height of the Great Recession in 2007-09, the state's pre-K program was more protected than some in other states, but a massive budget hole still left teacher salaries devastated. Barnett said it's difficult to know whether those same effects will play out this time around.

"I think there's just a lot of uncertainty now," he said.

Texas' pre-K offerings don't fare well in the report, meeting only three of the 10 thresholds the report lays out for high-quality programs. But the report is based on data from the 2018-19 school year, meaning it doesn't take into account changes made during the last legislative session.

Barnett said the state's move from half-day to full-day pre-K programs statewide is a big step in the right direction. Research shows that full-day pre-K programs offer substantial benefits over half-day programs. A 2014 University of Minnesota study found that students in full-day programs performed better academically and had better attendance than those in part-day programs.

But the state's expansion of its pre-K classes from half day to full day doesn't affect other metrics where the state's program falls short. The institute recommends states cap maximum pre-K class sizes at 20 students and maximum student-to-teacher ratios at 10-to-1. Texas does neither. Nor does the state offer professional development for pre-K teaching assistants, as the institute recommends.

The good news, Barnett said, is that the standard is higher in many large urban districts than it is across the state. Pre-K programs in districts such as Dallas ISD and Austin ISD meet several quality benchmarks that the state as a whole doesn't.

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