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Big Preschool Goals Face Tough Budget Realities

LEXINGTON, Ky. - In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama made the case for expanding early childhood education. Adding more pre-K opportunities is also one of Governor Steve Beshear's goals, but budget constraints at both the federal and state level present significant challenges.

The three and four-year-old students in Lisa Mudd’s preschool class stay busy during their time at Dixie Elementary in Lexington.  There’s playtime, reading books, sing-alongs, and getting a hug from Ms. Mudd when feelings get hurt.

Mudd has been teaching preschool for nearly three decades. She says it’s where many students get their first exposure to art, numbers, science, and reading.

“Just that love of learning and that love of school, that can be a lot.”

Public preschool in Kentucky is open to four-year-olds whose family income is at or below 150 percent of the poverty level, along with three and four-year-olds with a developmental delay or special need, regardless of income.

The two funding sources for early childhood education are the federal program Head Start and Early Start at the state level.

Expansion Goals

“Too many Kentucky children are getting off to a poor start in life. They start out behind and never catch up. And we want to remedy that,” Gov. Steve Beshear declared in a press conference held in Lisa Mudd’s classroom last year.

Beshear called for an expansion of the pre-school income eligibility to 160 percent of the poverty level, eventually growing to 200 percent by the end of his second term in office.

Whitney Stevenson oversees early childhood services for Fayette County Public Schools. She says the district currently serves about 1,000 students and has seen a steady rise in enrollment.

“More people are hearing about our program, more children diagnosed with special needs.”

Proponents of preschool education say students have greater success in school and are more likely to get jobs after graduation than non-participants. There are some critics of those research findings, but Stevenson says anecdotally, kindergarten teachers tell her that preschool does make a difference.

“And maybe it’s just the child can sit with peers at a table and keep their hands to themselves, or follow directions, or just knowing how to be in a large group setting.”

Because of funding, schools districts don’t have the space or resources to accept students who fall outside the income eligibility requirements. That often results in anger and tears.

“That is a very tough conversation and we hate having those conversations, but we have the guidelines we have to follow. But we don’t just want to say, ‘you don’t qualify, see in you kindergarten next year,’” says Stevenson.

In those cases, FCPS tries to help parents find private childcare providers and make recommendations about what skills families can focus on at home.

Budget Woes

Rachel Kingsland, a student teacher in Lisa Mudd's preschool class, reads to a group of students.

Governor Steve Beshear’s proposed expansion would have cost the state $15 million and allowed an additional 4,400 children across Kentucky to enroll in public preschool. The budget recommendation was approved by the House, but died in the state Senate.

“I would say plain and simple it was a victim of the current budget situation,” says Terry Tolan, executive director of the Governor’s office of Early Childhood.

She says preschool expansion is still on Beshear’s priority list.

“We just need to make sure that we give them every chance to help make that a reality.”

But with state and local government cutting back rather than expanding, that goal is easier said than done.

Next month, low-income parents in Kentucky will be dealt a blow when the Cabinet for Health and Family Services cuts funding to the Child Care Assistance Program. And local officials aren’t sure how the federal sequester will affect the Head Start program.

Back at Dixie Elementary, preschool teacher Lisa Mudd doesn’t focus on program dollars, but on counting the success stories: a child recognizing their own name, remembering lyrics to a song, and starting to use words and sentences.

Lexington native Brenna Angel anchored local morning newscasts for WUKY through May 13. She joined the station in March 2010 after previously working for WHAS-AM in Louisville.
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