Public Policy Forum Blog

Wisconsin ranks 7th for pre-K access

The 2006 State Preschool Yearbook released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers (NIEER) ranks Wisconsin seventh for access to government-funded pre-K programs for 4-year-olds. The state ranks 22nd in access for 3-year-olds.

The report finds that 49% of all 4-year-olds in our state in 2006 were enrolled in either state-funded K4 (32%), state-funded or federally funded Head Start (9%), or a state-funded special education program (8%). For 3-year-olds, the total figure is 15%.

From the report:
Wisconsin’s state constitution has included a commitment to provide free education for 4-year-olds since it was adopted in 1848. The Four-Year-Old Kindergarten (K4) program dates back to 1873. This initiative continues today, though there was a suspension of state funding from 1957 to 1984. The K4 program is currently available in about half of Wisconsin’s school districts, which receive 50 percent of the standard state per-pupil funding amount to provide half-day classes for 4-year-olds, or 60 percent if the school also offers parent support. Public schools may offer prekindergarten directly, or contract with Head Start, private child care centers, or family child care homes to provide services. The state has pushed successfully for program expansion in recent years, serving more children in districts with existing programs and opening programs in districts that did not have K4 previously. The growth continues, with 23 new districts implementing K4 in 2006-2007.

A Washington Post story about the report notes:
...[R]esearch highlighting the importance of early learning is prompting more and more states to add pre-kindergarten programs. "Virtually every state has a very strong movement toward doing a better job with pre-k," said Arthur Rolnick, a senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and part of a group of business leaders calling for giving low-income kids earlier access to public school.

Nationally, the report finds that states spent a total of $3.3 billion last year on pre-kindergarten, up from $2.8 billion in 2005. The state figures do not include federal and local governments' contributions. Wisconsin state aid totals $62.4 million, or $2,971 per child enrolled, placing us 23 in the resource ranking.

Of the ten quality benchmarks created by the NIEER, Wisconsin programs meet six. Those we don't meet? According to the NIEER, we lack teacher quality and accountability (in the form of state oversight of program sites).

This non-prescriptive approach to program quality is the result of the balance we struck here in Wisconsin between state and local control. Wisconsin allows school districts and Head Start providers to collaborate and contract with private providers. The reasons for doing so vary from keeping costs down, to increasing access, to providing greater choice for parents. We call this community collaboration and the theory is that it will encourage public and private providers to work together to better meet the needs of parents. What we don't know is whether this model is truly meeting Wisconsin parent needs. The Forum is currently drafting a survey designed to help answer that question. We will be asking parents about their experiences with early childhood education, including pre-K, and gathering their opinions about the programs they desire and the programs that are available to them. This survey will be the start of a new three-year project by the Forum to measure the costs and benefits of high quality early childhood education to our regional economy. Stay tuned.

Anneliese Dickman