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 In California, a plan to expand state-funded pre-K to 10,000 children has been canceled due to a state budget crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In Wyoming, a public preschool program for children with disabilities and developmental delays will lose $8.8 million in funding. And in New York, administrators who run pre-K classrooms funded by state money say they are expecting up to 20 percent in funding cuts to their programs.

State-funded pre-K programs are under enormous financial pressure. With states facing massive shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic, experts say these cuts to pre-K programs are likely just the beginning. “That’s what we all are holding our breath about right now,” said Karin Garver, an early childhood education policy specialist at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), who recently published a report that looked at how the pandemic could impact state-funded pre-K.  

Public pre-K can be a lifeline for parents by providing affordable, high-quality education that helps children develop critical academic and social-emotional skills. Research has also found that high-quality pre-K can help reduce the achievement gap at an early age and that participants are less likely to require special education services or repeat a grade down the road.

But despite the benefits, experts say these programs are often put on the chopping block during times of financial distress. They point to the years following the Great Recession as evidence of the widespread cuts that may be ahead for public preschool: after the recession hit in late 2007, states made major cuts to funding for public pre-K programs that persisted for years. Data included in Garver’s report show state funding for pre-K programs declined for up to four years after the recession began. Out of 39 states, including Washington D.C., that had public preschool in the 2007-08 school year, 25 spent less per child in state funded preschool in the 2018-19 school year than before the Great Recession, even when adjusting for inflation. 

“These children won’t get their pre-K years back. You only get one shot with each age group of children.” Karin Garver, early childhood education policy specialist at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)

A decade later, many of these programs still haven’t returned to the same levels of funding and quality as before. In 2019, only four states met all ten minimum quality standards set by NIEER, suggesting the funding cuts have a long-standing effect on access and quality. “We’re ten years out and we still haven’t recovered,” Garver said. “So if we get hit again, the expectation would be that recovery would be at least as long, if not longer.”

These state cuts are already being felt at a local level.  In Nevada, a pre-K program that serves 250 students will not open in the fall in part to cover budget issues from the pandemic. In Maine, three elementary schools are putting the launch of their public pre-K programs on hold to save money. In New York, one district may cancel their pre-K program due to low enrollment and reduced funding from the state. And in Hawaii, funding cuts could eliminate seven teaching positions in classrooms supported by the state’s pre-K program.

Garver said as state officials look at their budgets during the pandemic, it’s critical they try to protect early learning programs. Even after the Great Recession, some states like Rhode Island and Vermont started or expanded state-funded pre-K, she added, proving it’s possible to boost early learning programs even during a budget crisis. “It’s about prioritizing,” she said. “These children won’t get their pre-K years back. You only get one shot with each age group of children. So when we pull back on quality and access, that’s a permanent decision for that [group] of children and they will never get that back again.” 

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about state funding for pre-K was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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