International News

United States: Recession shadow over preschools

Lily, who is three-and-a-half, loves her nursery school in Queens, a borough of New York. Her mother calls her “the sponge” because every day she comes home with new nuggets of knowledge. But not every child is as lucky as Lily. A new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) shows that states’ preschool funding is declining, which means fewer children will have access to early education, which most agree is essential especially for children living in low-income households. The study looked at 40 states which fund programmes for three to four year-olds. “State cuts to preschool funding transformed the recession into a depression for many young children,” says Steven Barnett, author of the report.

State preschool spending per child decreased by $114 to $4,028 (Rs.1.81 lakh) last year. This is almost $700 (Rs.31,500) less than in 2001-2002. Arne Duncan, the education secretary, understands that states are watching every penny. Tightening budgets is the new normal, he admits, “but there are smart ways to cut and there are dumb ways to cut”. Cutting early education budgets, he reckons, is one of the dumb ones. Duncan is, in fact, making early education one of his priorities, by including it in the next round of funding for Race to the Top — the big federal programme for schools.

Ten states don’t provide any funding at all for preschoolers, and some appear to fund it only haphazardly. In Florida preschool programmes are available to all four-year-olds. The problem there is not quantity, but quality. Some programmes — and not just in Florida — are nothing more than glorified baby-sitting. The report encourages states to set and stick to standards so that children are prepared for kindergarten at age five.

But more financial woe could be on the way. Congress is considering a Republican proposal to cut Head Start, a federal preschool funding programme for poor families. Chester Finn of the Thomas Fordham Institute, an education think-tank, is no fan of universal preschool. He thinks it makes more sense to focus the limited resources available on intensive programmes for the neediest children.

Duncan insists education, especially early education, is vital for America to remain competitive. An OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report found that although the United States spends more per child on education than any other OECD country, it lags behind in funding the early years.

(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist)