Even as more parents than ever are interested in Early Childhood Education for their children, and researchers are more in agreement than ever on the tremendous value of early childhood education, a new report highlights severe funding challenges for pre-K.
Released late last month by the National Institute for Education Research, the State of Preschool 2021 report provides a snapshot of pre-K amid the pandemic, measuring the enrollment, expenditures and effectiveness of pre-K programs.
Across the country, enrollment dramatically decreased during the pandemic. Minnesota was an exception to this, as one of just a handful of states to post a slight increase in pre-K enrollment during the height of the pandemic.
The good news is that much of the enrollment lost during the pandemic may be set to return. In Northfield, that’s exactly what’s happened, with Community Education Director Erin Bailey reporting that a 30% drop in enrollment has disappeared.
During the pandemic’s height, Bailey said that families simply didn’t feel comfortable enrolling their toddlers in pre-K. With no vaccine available, and still no vaccine approved for the youngest children, families were deeply concerned that their children could spread the virus.
In Owatonna, Community Education Director Deb McDermott-Johnson saw COVID even affecting enrichment offerings outside of pre-K. She said that, last summer, Community Ed put together a robust event schedule but had to cancel most of it due to lack of attendance.
Even as they’ve felt the need to pull away from pre-K type programs, McDermott-Johnson insisted that parents still see tremendous value in them. Accordingly, she expects a quick shift back in terms of enrollment numbers.
When the pandemic exploded onto the scene, McDermott-Johnson said that the Community Education tried as hard as possible to continue interacting with the children and providing them with early learning resources, even if seeing them in person was not a safe or viable option.
Despite these efforts, St. Peter Community Center Early Childhood and Family Education Coordinator Ytive Prafke said that she’s seeing many 3- and 4-year-olds come in now, whose formative years were during the pandemic and whose development was delayed as a result.
“We are seeing kids who haven't had as many social experiences and now have some speech and language delays,” she said.
Prafke emphasized that much of the value of pre-K isn’t just academic. By teaching kids social skills and helping them adapt to a school-like setting, she said that pre-K plays a critical role in ensuring students can hit the ground running in all aspects when they get to kindergarten.
Unfortunately, McDermott-Johnson said that funding has become an increasing problem, as expenses and funding sources rise but available funding does not. According to the report, per pupil funding dropped by an astonishing 8% in Minnesota during the 2021-22 school year.
Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad said that investments in Early Childhood Education are some of the most important investments a community can make. To Elstad, Early Childhood Education is a crucial part of building a strong foundation for student success.
“Early learning programs are simply vital for children, vital to their success in school,” he said. “And it requires funding.”
Already, pre-K programs are expected to do more with less. Faribault Community Education Director Anne Marie Leland noted that the district’s pre-K teachers are on the same contract as K-12 teachers, adding additional financial stress.
Without access to the same funding sources as traditional K-12, local pre-K Centers have been forced to scrape by on the back of tuition fees. That’s particularly difficult in a community like Faribault, where so many children are born to lower income families.
Progress has been made, Leland said, since the state rolled out its Voluntary pre-K program. Since then, the number of students who have been able to attend pre-K, thanks to minimal or free tuition, has increased significantly.
Across the Faribault School District, a majority of students are students of color and about two thirds receive free or reduced price school lunches. Leland confirmed that, for Early Childhood Education, those figures are even more lopsided.
While Faribault Community Education has been able to make the numbers work, Leland laments what could be if the Minnesota Legislature were to invest in additional funding, enabling Community Ed to expand its space and offerings.
“To only be getting 50-60 percent of the pupil aid they get for K-12 students is incredibly challenging,” she said. “We’re also required to have smaller class sizes, and we have paras to support children's needs.”