Little by little, the number of children in educational pre-kindergarten programs is dropping.
In Schenectady, the creep is small: 36 children will not be able to join pre-K at all next year, and some others will only be offered a half-day class.
The trend is the same throughout the country.
According to a report released by the National Institute for Early Education Research, 2012 was worst year for pre-K in more than a decade.
“After a decade of growth, enrollment has stalled. This marks the first time we have seen no increase in the percentage of children served in state pre-K,” institute Director W. Steven Barnett wrote.
He said pre-K is in “a state of emergency” and called for immediate action to get more students into early schooling.
In Schenectady, the reduction was at Head Start, which had to make cuts to meet a 5 percent cut in federal aid.
But the city school district also didn’t add any new slots for 4-year-olds.
That’s partly because of the city school district budget. Superintendent Laurence Spring proposed closing one of the city’s pre-K buildings, Blodgett School.
There will be fewer seats available in the full-day program next year, although the same total number of children will get some pre-K.
But the program won’t grow with population growth, a problem Barnett highlighted in his report.
Throughout the country, pre-K programs aren’t keeping up with population growth, he said.
Barnett also said that pre-K was an easy place to cut budgets, detailing a decade-long trend of cuts that began before, and apparently is unrelated to, the Great Recession.
“While much of the economy is now recovering from the Great Recession, the nation’s youngest learners are still bearing the brunt of budget cuts,” he said.
Foundation helps out
In Schenectady, a sudden federal aid cut would have ended the school year early for 36 children. Instead, the Schenectady Foundation provided the money for them to finish their school year.
Executive Director Robert Carreau said the foundation wanted to support Head Start because of its record in improving poor children’s pre-kindergarten literacy.
But, he said, the foundation can’t support Head Start indefinitely. This fall, unless federal aid is increased, officials will simply not invite 36 new children to join the program.
The same federal aid cut could soon reduce the number of slots for Early Head Start in Schenectady, but officials hoped to use donations to keep those children for a little while longer.
Raymond Schimmer, CEO of Northern Rivers, which runs Early Head Start, said pre-K has such a strong record of success that it shouldn’t ever be cut.
Yet state funding for pre-K fell by half a billion dollars in 2011-2012, according to the pre-K report.
After adjusting for inflation, the cut was the largest one-year drop ever, Barnett said.
He added that states could easily fund pre-K.
“In any budget, pre-K is a fraction of a percent,” he said. “It is possible to reprioritize.”
‘A pretty intense need’
Superintendent Spring said he was dependent on state funding for the pre-K program, but added that he would prefer to offer it to more 4-year-olds.
“I think that’s there’s a pretty intense need,” he said.
Many children need early literacy classes, he said, as well as simply practicing how to behave in school so that they can learn.
“How to line up, how to follow instructions,” he said.
Researcher Megan Carolan, who worked on the pre-K report, said she had hoped that states would pour more money into pre-K this year to balance out last year’s cuts.
“We’re seeing states are trying to offset it,” she said.
The mid-year cuts at Head Start are “really troubling,” she added.
She agreed with Schimmer that investing in pre-K pays off quickly.
“Research shows, again and again, the earlier children receive quality education, the better,” she said. “High-quality is going to cost a little bit more, but that’s how you’re going to get the investment you’re looking for.”