Fair start


States are spending less on prekindergarten programs that prepare children for school and learning. This trend must be reversed, or the nation will continue to see dramatic and growing gaps in the achievement scores of affluent, middle-class, and poor students.

State funding for prekindergarten programs endured its biggest drop ever last year. States spent far less per child in real dollars than they did a decade ago, reports the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Poor children generally enter school a year or two behind their more-affluent classmates. The preparation gap is also growing between the children of the rich and those of the middle class.

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Affluent families can provide more access to academic enrichment programs, high-quality day care, home libraries, and computers. They are usually more educated, and family life is more stable.

New research suggests family income determines a child’s academic achievement more than race or the quality of the school he or she attends. African-American children continue to suffer most from cuts to preschool programs.

States ought to treat prekindergarten programs as the vital resources they are. They help make up for the vast differences in academic preparation that children from different income levels receive, even before they set foot in a classroom.

Ohioans need to pay special attention. A study released last year of state-funded preschool education ranked Ohio last out of 39 states evaluated.

The National Institute for Early Education Research concluded that Ohio met fewer benchmarks for high-quality preschool than any other state that funded preschool in 2011. The study cited a lack of monitoring and diminishing funding for the poor rating.

On the plus side, Ohio got a federal Race to the Top grant of $70 million for programs from 2012 to 2015 that serve high-needs children from birth to age 5. But it’s not enough. Ohio’s annual funding for early childhood education programs dropped from $36.5 million to $23.2 million during the past five years.

Nationwide, in the 2011-2012 school year, state funding for preschool programs dropped to an average of $3,841 for each student — the first time average spending per student dropped below $4,000 in today’s dollars since tracking started in 2001. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it represents a cut of more than $1,000 per student over the past decade.

President Obama seeks to expand prekindergarten programs across the country by helping states pay for public preschool for any 4-year-old whose family income is less than double the federal poverty rate. He proposes paying for expanded programs by nearly doubling the federal cigarette tax to $1.95 per pack.

States spent $5.1 billion on prekindergarten programs last year. Mr. Obama wants to spend $75 billion over 10 years to help expand them.

Money doesn’t guarantee student success. But dollars spent on preschool programs are arguably the most effective way to improve academic performance.

As states cut funding, the President’s plan to help states expand such programs offers the best hope of helping to maintain an American ideal: equal access to education and opportunity.