Federal funding streams are not enough, so local programs may turn away applicants they can’t afford
By GLYNIS HART
CONCORD — A new study sponsored by the RAND Corporation and distributed by the Endowment for Health found that access to pre-kindergarten classrooms and other early childhood interventions in New Hampshire does not match with the need. Instead, children served with pre-K classrooms are just as likely to be in high-income areas as low-income areas. At most, only one in five children who meets income guidelines receives a childcare subsidy. Fewer than one in nine families that could qualify for home visiting services actually get them; due to a lack of funding, many families who are legally eligible for help do not receive it.
The landscape in which services are provided is varies widely, from communities where there are almost no risk factors and income levels are high, to communities where over 50 percent of children were born to single parents and 30 percent lived under the federal poverty line (i.e. $25,000 for a family of four). In the poorest communities around 50 percent of students test as proficient on their grade level and as many as 30 percent of high school students do not graduate. Early childhood intervention is meant to counter or ameliorate these inequalities.
Two services examined
The study looked at two areas of early childhood services: Home visits and pre-K programs.
The study’s author, Dr. Lynn Karoly, using data collected in 2017, recommended a targeted investment strategy to increase services in areas of highest need/low access: “This approach has the potential to maximize the return on the investment by starting with those children and families where there is the greatest potential to improve outcomes.”
Karoly found that for every dollar invested in home visiting programs, $4 to $6 returned to the public; for every dollar invested in pre-K, the return was $2. The success of such interventions is measured by the reduction, as children turn into adults, of “crime and criminality, reduced use of special education, higher grade retention and higher graduation rates,” she said.
Karoly recommends more state funding to fill the gaps. “If you rely on the federal funding streams, it’s not enough.”
For example, universal pre-K receives federal funding for special education, but accepts both special needs and developmentally typical children. It is unclear how many children in pre-K are special needs and how many are not, since New Hampshire school districts are not required to track this information.
“Real and effective change can only come through time and long-term funding,” said Cathy MacDowell, special projects manager of the Coös Coalition. Coös County has a large connected early childhood system, organized by the Coös Coalition and funded largely by private donations.
The Coös Coalition doesn’t have to turn away any applicants, thanks to their private funding, MacDowell said. They’re lucky because, if the main source of funding is Medicaid programs, for instance, programs end up turning away mothers over 21, or mothers past their first child and grandparents raising grandchildren. Federal funding for Head Start has always fallen short of its legal obligation, so local programs try to husband their funds and may turn away applicants they can’t afford.
MacDowell said the Coös Coalition found that school districts and early childhood programs were all using different tests to measure child development, which made it hard to measure children’s progress. Once a standard test was accepted by everyone, enrollment went up and so did retention.
In Claremont, a collaboration between the school district and the Claremont Learning Partnership resulted in the creation of the One-4-All Family Space, a no-fee licensed child care facility located near Claremont’s middle and high schools. The Family Space is entirely grant-supported, with funds from the SAU, Title I, and several foundations.
Another arm of early childhood intervention, home visiting, has a long track record in New Hampshire. Home visiting, also federally funded, involves early childhood specialists and parents who voluntarily sign up for visits. The visits promote maternal and child health, prevent child abuse and neglect, advance positive parenting, and promote child development and school readiness. In Claremont, the TCL Family Resource Center administers home visits.
The study looked at four communities, including Claremont, that had taken creative approaches to providing early childhood interventions, but noted that such services are “dependent on strong leaders at all levels, individual players in organizations with skills, vision, and tenacity. They are executive directors, district superintendents, school principals, assistant principals, program directors, and others. We might look at this leadership and be grateful that the system is in good hands, and we might imagine that other communities have similar assets. However, the reliance on exceptional individuals makes the system vulnerable because each becomes a single point of failure.”