Pre-to-3: Governance, preschool expansion among governors’ top early ed goals for 2020

This latest Pre-to-3 column highlights some of the nation’s governors’ early learning proposals for the 2020 legislative season. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.

Hawaii’s state-funded preschool program serves only 2% of eligible children, according to an annual report on state-funded preschool enrollment and quality. But Democratic Gov. David Ige wants to change that with a proposal to increase the range of providers and facilities housing pre-K classrooms.

The public-private partnership could potentially include college campuses, high schools and even a stadium and a convention center to increase families’ access to programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The plan also calls for moving the state’s Executive Office on Early Learning out of the state Department of Education and into the Department of Human Services, which operates Preschool Open Doors. The program provides low-income families with assistance to pay for preschool. 

The Hawaii plan is just one example of the early-childhood education proposals state lawmakers across the country are considering this legislative season. 

“I have been seeing much of the same types of legislation as last year,” says Jorge Casares, an education research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. These include bills addressing discipline practices in preschool and the early grades to reduce suspension, qualifications for early educators and standards for program quality.

Governance over early-childhood education is also an issue in California this year, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who campaigned on expanding early-childhood education and has made it a key priority in his administration so far, is calling for a new early learning agency as part of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

But the plan has been shot down by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. “We recommend the legislature reject the proposal, as it lacks sufficient detail and does not provide any clarity on how the restructuring would lead to more effective or efficient services to children and families,” according to LAO’s report.

In addition, the report suggests the administration might want to revisit the idea after a “master plan” for the state’s early-childhood programs is released this fall.

Experts have long described California’s mix of publicly funded early-childhood programs as “fragmented” and “dizzying,” but LAO suggests a new agency wouldn’t necessarily change that. LAO did, however, support the governor’s plan to simplify the application process for providers seeking contracts to participate in the State Preschool Program.

Creating a new early learning agency was a top policy issue for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham when she took office last year. And now the office has its first cabinet secretary, Elizabeth Groginsky, who previously worked in Colorado and also led early learning for the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education. 

Expansion plans

With those decisions resolved, Gov. Lujan Grisham moved on to funding early childhood programs, last month signing legislation establishing a trust fund to help pay for pre-K and other early learning programs. Increases in revenue from the state’s booming oil industry will help finance the fund. 

Governors in Colorado and Illinois are also pledging to expand access to preschool. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who was successful last year in pushing through a statewide full-day kindergarten law, is proposing the state spend $27 million to add 6,000 slots to the Colorado Preschool Program. 

Expanding access to early-childhood education and other services for families with young children is also part of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed budget. 

“Kindergarten is nearly too late to begin educating a child — social emotional development begins at birth, and a child’s earliest interactions are the most important ones,” he said during his budget address last month. “That’s why I’m determined to make Illinois the best state in the nation to raise young children.”

In addition to adding $50 million to the state’s Early Childhood Block Grant and expanding child care funding, Pritzker also wants to make home-visiting services available to “at-risk families with very young children.”

Continued focus on early literacy

The topic of foundational reading skills also appeared in several governors’ addresses this year — not surprising considering recent reactions to the lack of progress in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee is proposing a $68 million literacy program that would include new instructional materials and training for teachers on effective strategies. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is proposing $24 million to expand the number of literacy coaches available in classrooms to support struggling readers. She also wants to see community organizations help parents navigate the state’s controversial 3rd grade retention law, which takes effect this year.

And Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy discussed the Alaska Reads Act, which would include statewide teacher training, make use of an early literacy screening tool and encourage home reading strategies. 

“As a former teacher, principal, and superintendent, I have seen the many ways in which our schools shape our children’s lives, as well as the challenges our educators face,” he said when announcing the plan. “Alaska has bright spots and high performing schools, but there are also areas that need improvement — specifically reading.”

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