The majority of Iowa’s 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families were not enrolled in preschool in 2011, according to results from an Annie E. Casey Foundation report released today.
The report defines low-income as families whose annual income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty limit. The data estimates show that, of the 34,000 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families in Iowa in 2011, 21,000 of them (61 percent) were not enrolled in preschool. That statistic, which reflects a 3-percent increase from 2005, is below the study’s national average of 63 percent. Sheila Hansen, director of Every Child Counts, said the statewide measurement still reveals a struggle.
“We’re not serving a huge population of the most at risk kids,” said Hansen. “All of the research we have, especially for low-income kids, says preschool makes a (positive) difference, especially long term.”
The report also showed that, of the 359,615 children between birth and age 8 living in Iowa in 2012, 142,000 (40 percent) of them live in low-income households, defined as “below 200 percent of 2012 federal poverty threshold of $45,566 for a family of two adults and two children.” That’s below the national average of 48 percent.
Every Child Counts is an arm of the Iowa’s Child and Family Policy Center, of which the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s state-level Kids Count initiative is part.
Penny Milburn, an early childhood consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, listed three potential reasons responsible for the outcome: funding, transportation and scheduling. She also noted that the threshold for poverty used by the study differs from the definition that the Iowa Department of Education uses, which is 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline. In addition, she mentioned that some preschool families do not fill out meal forms, which are used to measure poverty, because their students may only be in programming for a half day and thus are not being fed by the providers.
The state of Iowa does provide funds for at-risk 3- to 5-year-olds to receive early childhood education through the Shared Visions Preschool program. The Iowa Department of Education also administers the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for 4-Year-Old Children, which was established in 2007 and served 19,799 children in 2010-11.
Milburn said that only “a small portion” of the Shared Visions dollars, which amounted to $6.54 million in 2011-12 for preschool programs, reach 3-year-olds and that’s the state’s only funding for early childhood education for children that age.
The Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program – funded at $60 million in 2012-13 – only mandates 10 hours of instruction each week, which Milburn said can create hurdles in enrollment for some low-income families.
“That, in essence leaves, families in a bind to find child care for the remaining hours per week,” she said. “Those programs generally offer more than 10 hours per week, but that still doesn’t cover the 40 to 60 hours per week that a working family may need for their preschool.”
Data collected for the Casey Foundation’s report, “The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success,” shows that 53 percent of Iowa’s 3- and 4-year-olds from non low-income families were enrolled in preschool in 2011. That number reflects a 10-percent rise from 2005.
Both Milburn and Hansen agreed that people throughout the state and the nation, including legislators, struggle to grasp the importance of preschool. Milburn said that expanding funding for 3-year-olds is not a legislative priority but more information could turn the tide.
“Across the United States for many, many years we have been accustomed to a K-12 education system,” she said. “This idea of preschool systems for 4-year-olds is a relatively new concept.”
To Hansen – who referenced statistics about lower crime and welfare rates among students who attend preschool – it will take more foresight and “political will” to expand access.
“We need to have the courage to take that step,” she said. “The problem is, legislators think in terms of their election cycles. This is a hard one for them to see. ‘OK I’m investing now, I want to see the benefits now or next year.’ With this one, they have to wait awhile, there’s not this immediate return.”