KENTUCKY — Kentucky is investing almost record funding in early childhood education but the COVID-19 pandemic could put that in jeopardy.
The National Institute of Early Education Research says Kentucky is moving in the right direction when it comes to preschool funding but it still has a lot of room for improvement.
NIEER released its annual “State of Preschool” report showing despite Kentucky investing more money in preschool education enrollment is still falling behind the national average.
Just 29 percent of 4-year olds and 9 percent of 3-year olds are enrolled in pre-k for the 2018-19 school year. Nationally, 34 percent of 4-year olds are in preschool. Despite the numbers, Dr. Terry Brooks, Executive Director of Kentucky Youth Advocates is optimistic about the report.
“Our hill is a big hill, it’s Mt. Everest, not a little foothill,” he said. “I think the encouragement is that my sense is from lawmakers there is a real growing sense of the role of early childhood education.”
The state invested $5.7 million more in the 2018-19 school year but with revenues likely to tumble as a result of the pandemic preschool funding could fall on the back burner.
“I’m not going to give you an answer that I expect the preschool to be the big winner in 20-21 session,” Dr. Brooks said. “I think that we need to continue to emphasize it’s importance and we need to continue to think about long term projections and we need to continue to make it a continued priority”
Kentucky is meeting 8 out of the 10 benchmarks provided in the report for quality early childhood education.
“It’s good news that we are improving, but it’s a pretty challenging message as to how we can continue to improve,” Brooks said. “It does continue to iterate the message that preschool effort is not some icing on the cake, it was not too long ago that people regarded anything past first grade, let alone kindergarten, as fluff”
The report found that nationally more than $8.7 billion was being invested in pre-k education but the progress among states was uneven in access to early childhood education, which continues to increase the gaps between the best and worst states for early childhood education.
“Even when the economy has been strong, progress providing state pre-k has been slow and uneven,” said Dr. Steven Barnett, NIEER’s senior co-director and founder. “With another recession likely, extraordinary state and federal action will be needed to ensure our youngest learners are not just protected, but better served.”
Kentucky ranked in the middle when it came to funding pre-k, ranking 22 in spending per student, with $4,925 being spent per child during the 2018-19 school year — that was an increase of $250 from 2017-18 school year.
Kentucky was also ranked in the middle of 4-year olds attending preschool — coming in at 25th nationally, however, Kentucky is ranked 11th in the nation for the number of 3-year olds receiving education prior to kindergarten.
Dr. Brooks underscores the importance of providing an education to young children.
“When we talk about profound achievement gaps at the third-grade level, at the eighth-grade level, those gaps they don’t begin at the end of third grade, they don’t being at the end of eighth grade, they begin with 3 and 4-year-olds and that’s why that commitment to preschool is absolutely imperative it’s not an option for the commonwealth,” Brooks said.
Brooks says national reports like the “State of Preschool” report are crucial in educating policymakers and the public on the importance of early childhood education.
“Reports like this are really important because it does offer national perimeters, national benchmarks, gives our lawmakers and administration leaders a bit of a snapshot as to where do we as a state stand, it tells us how other states who face many of the same issues that Kentucky faces, how are they able to manage issues like this,” Brooks said. “These kinds of reports can be a catalyst, they can be reminders.”