fresh voices from the front lines of change







Any experienced first-grade teacher can tell you how to spot the new kids in class who’ve never been exposed to books. They often don’t know where to start with a book, turning to the back page or holding it the wrong way. Sometimes they ignore books altogether and, when being read to, fidget nervously or act out inappropriately. For parents or anyone else who has ever cherished reading to kids it’s a painful thing to see.

But as this school year winds to an end, and classes resume in the fall, it’s a sight that teachers are going to be seeing a lot more of – that is, if our current political leadership keeps going in the direction it is.

Although there is a lot of complexity to the current debate about public school policy in the U.S., and the national media has mostly focused on the role of teachers and the contracts and agreements managing them, two arguably far more important developments with much more catastrophic impact on children are the huge budget cuts, at virtually every level of government, assaulting early childhood education and reading programs for kids.

On the early childhood front, funding was already spiraling downward as states spent $30 million less in 2009-10 than in the previous year, giving $700 less per child than what was spent in 2001-2002 and enrolling only 26 percent of 4-year-olds nation wide. Ten states cut early childhood completely. And now it’s only going to get much worse.

In Texas, $200 million in grants from the state that support pre-kindergarten programs, mostly full-day, in 1,237 districts is about to disappear. In Pennsylvania, educators warn that austerity measures being pushed by governor Corbett – effectively zeroing-out a $220 million budget for full-day kindergarten and early childhood education – will force districts into “drastic cuts” to early learning programs. In California, 16 percent cuts statewide will eliminate $140 million in spending on early learning and wipe out 28,000 slots for students eligible for state-subsidized pre-K. And New Jersey’s conservative governor Christie wants to fund half-day only preschool in urban districts.

Many state legislators – like those in Michigan, where 40,000 4-year-olds who are eligible for free pre-K are already left out because of lack of funds – are talking about cutting pre-K even further. While even more states, such as North Carolina, are poised to cut state support of Pre-K education altogether. Iowa , Georgia , Colorado , Illinois . . . the carnage just goes on and on.

At the federal level, the picture on early childhood education funding is not looking a whole lot better. Republicans in the House want to take an axe to key early learning investments such as Head Start, Early Head Start, and the Child Care Development Block Grant.

On the Democratic side, the Obama administration has called for $700 million in new funding for competitive grants, which can include early childhood education as a potential target for new spending. But Congress gave only the vaguest of guidelines for how that money will end up being spent, and so far the US Department of Education has not stated how new funding would be directed to early learning initiatives. But even so, it’s been estimated that it would take $2 billion in additional spending to provide every disadvantaged child with quality prekindergarten. So regardless of what share of these federal grants go to Pre-K, it’s going to be woefully inadequate.

Reading programs have also been a major target of the budget slashers. Few people understand that when schools get slammed with “across the board cuts” it usually means that specialists such as reading teachers are the first to go. What’s worse is that reading programs have become a target at the federal level as well.

The Obama administration seems to be in a full-scale retreat on funding reading initiatives, calling for, according to Education Week “the elimination of most federal aid for literacy programs.” Meanwhile Congress already completely did away with funding for a promising reading program called Striving Readers that had just started to show positive effects.

What makes these cuts to early childhood education and reading especially bad is that these are two areas where increased funding and opening access to more children have proven to have really positive effects.

The wisdom for investing in early childhood education programs has been argued persuasively by people who seem to know something about investing, like officials from the Federal Reserve. Ben Bernake himself has pointed out that “the payoffs of early childhood programs can be especially high.”

Recently, at the website for George Lucas’ Edutopia, The Learning First Alliance’s Anne Obrien provided a really good roundup of the research proving the benefits of early childhood education. She points to Chicago, where every dollar invested in the preschool program yielded nearly $11 in return to society over participants’ lifetimes – the equivalent of an 18 percent annual return. In Michigan, the states’ pre-K program saved the state at least $1 billion over 25 years. And in the most comprehensive and definitive study on the benefits of early childhood education – the famous Perry Preschool Program – found that children who had been enrolled in pre-K eventually, throughout the 40-year duration of the study, resulted in adults with higher earnings, higher employment, and a lower crime rate – giving back to society $16 for every tax dollar invested in the program.

The payoffs resulting from reading programs have been equally chronicled by research. One recent study by Reading Is Fundamental, Inc. , the oldest and largest children’s and family nonprofit literacy organization in the US, found that providing young children access to print materials improves their reading performance in kindergarten, helps them learn the basics of reading (letter and word identification, completion of sentences, etc), motivates them to read more frequently and for greater amounts of times, and improves their attitudes toward reading.

And just this week, a new Stanford University study of 17 schools across the country found that “putting literacy coaches in schools can help boost students’ reading skills by as much as 32 percent over three years.”

So with results like this, why are we cutting early childhood education and reading?

Fortunately, at least one sane voice has spoken out, at least in regard to reading. This week, Senator Patty Murray, (WA, D) a former preschool teacher and school board member herself, proposed the LEARN act to partially restore the federal funding slashed from reading programs. In her commentary at Education Week she explains:

I know that if students don’t have a strong foundation in reading and writing, there is very little else we can do to help them succeed in the modern world. Literacy needs to come first, and it needs to get the strong and consistent support from the federal government that it deserves . . . Unfortunately, however, the federal commitment to literacy education has been inconsistent and, frankly, inadequate.

At a time when a lot of business-speak is being applied to education, and we’re being exhorted to use tax money to “leverage” change and focus on only those ideas that can “scale-up” and provide “cost-efficiencies,” doesn’t it seem that providing money to early childhood education and reading programs would meet the needs of all those who are advocating – supposedly, on the behalf of school children – for sound education policies? Or is that not the point?

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