State-Funded Pre-Kindergarten: What the Evidence Shows. B. Some states have comprehensive systems initiatives that target school readiness


Some states are undertaking the development of comprehensive early childhood systems that focus on providing high quality early childhood education that links children to essential services needed to promote school readiness. During the past five years, there has been an increase in the number of states developing initiatives to create early childhood systems that address children’s educational, health, and family support needs, as opposed to developing targeted programs or services that focus on only one of these areas.(64)

In developing these systems, states have recognized that developing the language and cognitive skills, social competencies, and physical and emotional health needed for school preparedness begins at birth. Instead of focusing exclusively on three- to four-year-olds, most of these approaches strive for integrated and comprehensive early education and service systems that begin at birth and continue at least through age five. In addition, states are using data from varied sources to inform the design and operation of their programs in order to best meet the needs of the children and families served and to evaluate the results of their efforts.

  • California(65)

    In 1998, California passed the California Children and Families Act as a result of a statewide referendum known as Proposition 10. The initiative emphasizes the development of an integrated, comprehensive, and collaborative system of information and services for young children and their families. According to state statute, programs should emphasize community awareness, education, child care, social services, health care, and research. The California Children and Families Commission, called First 5 California, provides statewide leadership for the initiative. The Commission funds research projects and model programs, supports a public education campaign, and works with county-level commissions.

    Revenues for funding the entire initiative, raised from tobacco taxes, totaled about $690 million in FY 2000 and $626 million in FY 2001; 80% of funds go to the county commissions to meet locally identified needs. On average, in FY 2001 local commissions distributed 15% of their funds, totaling $26,694,394, to support systems change efforts that involve developing county-level capacity to provide integrated, effective, and consumer-oriented systems.

    The Commission adopted school readiness as its overarching goal, with the signature project being a $400 million school readiness initiative. The “Essential and Coordinated Elements” required for every School Readiness Program includes: early care and education with transition strategies, parenting and family support services including literacy and parenting skills, health and social services, and targeted school readiness activities that include early childhood and kindergarten standards and curriculum.

    State statute requires an evaluation to determine the impact of the First 5 California Children and Families funds, including assessments of funds expended and progress toward achieving goals and objectives. Other data are used to design and implement the initiative. For example:

    • Effectiveness studies are being conducted on funded products and programs, such as a Kit for New Parents, and programs to train and retain early care and education staff.
    • A Geographic Information System maps risk factors, resources, and information at both the state and county levels. The information is used to identify complex relationships between community problems and available resources and to integrate information from different sources to produce a more holistic picture of the environments where California children live.
    • The California Health Survey provides population-based state and local health data and is the largest state survey ever conducted in the U.S.
    • The First 5 California Commission uses research to inform the development of their initiatives. For example, it commissioned research reviews to inform the development of home visitation programs that support school readiness and to identify promising programs and practices in early care, education, family, and community support.


  • Kentucky(66)

    In 2000, legislation created and funded KIDS (Kentucky Invests in Developing Success) NOW, an early childhood initiative to address children’s health, safety, and school readiness needs. KIDS NOW supports a range of maternal and child health, family support, and early care and education services. An Early Childhood Development Authority provides oversight and allocates funds to local community councils. A Business Council of local leaders promotes investments in early childhood and a Professional Development Council works to create an education and training system for early care and education providers. The strategy is to build on existing resources, foster public-private partnerships, ensure collaborative planning and implementation, and mobilize communities to implement this comprehensive services program. The initiative is funded with 25% of Kentucky’s Phase 1 Tobacco Settlement dollars, which are expected to total $56 million across two years. A team of researchers from the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville are conducting an evaluation of KIDS NOW, though data are not yet available. The evaluation will include information about the characteristics of the children and families served, broad indicators of child and family experiences and outcomes, and details on the characteristics of centers in selected communities.


  • North Carolina

    North Carolina has implemented a variety of strategies to build an effective early care and education system for children from birth to the kindergarten entry.

    Smart Start(67) is a public-private partnership that provides funding for comprehensive community-based early childhood education and services and supports collaboration at both the state and local levels. Smart Start began as a governor’s initiative and was established in statute in 1993. Funding for Smart Start reached $220 million in 2001, but was reduced to $190 million in FY 2002-2003. More than $200 million in private contributions has been raised since the program began. Smart Start funds are administered at the local level through local nonprofit organizations. The primary goal of Smart Start has been to ensure that all children enter school healthy and prepared to succeed.

    The first round of awards were given to 12 partnerships (18 counties), and since 1997 all 100 counties in North Carolina have received Smart Start funds, either as a single-county partnership or as part of a multiple-county partnership. By legislative mandate, partnerships spend at least 70% of their funds on child care.

    Non-experimental evaluations focusing on three and four-year-olds in Smart Start have been conducted by researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.(68) Overall, findings for Smart Start show that the quality of center-based child care improved in centers that received Smart Start funding, and that children who attended better quality centers entered school with significantly better skills.(69) Specifically,

    • Teacher ratings of school readiness for children from low-income families who attended Smart Start Centers were significantly higher than for children from low-income families who had attended other centers.
    • Compared with children who had no previous child care experience, children who attended Smart Start Centers had higher teacher ratings of school readiness.
    • Children who attended Smart Start Centers that had focused on making child care quality improvements, such as enhanced subsidies for higher child care quality, higher teacher education, license upgrades, on-site technical assistance, quality improvement, and facility grants, had higher teacher school readiness ratings than children who attended non-Smart Start programs.(70)
    • Direct assessments of children showed that children who attended Smart Start Centers had better cognitive and language skills. Teacher ratings of children’s behavior showed fewer behavioral problems compared to children in centers that did not participate in Smart Start.

    With funding from the Packard Foundation, Smart Start has established an office to provide technical assistance to other states that are showing extensive interest in designing similar initiatives. North Carolina’s More at Four pre-kindergarten program complements Smart Start by targeting at-risk four-year-olds and providing a high quality program of standards-driven, research-based educational pre-kindergarten. Each of the state’s early childhood programs, including Head Start, child care, Smart Start, and More at Four, aims to link its funding, delivery systems and programming with the others to enhance cooperation and provide better services to children.

    Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are evaluating More at Four, though results are not yet available. To inform the More at Four initiative, the researchers completed a nationwide 2000-2001 survey of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs associated with public schools to learn more about public school involvement in the other states.(71) Survey respondents, who were early childhood specialists in state departments of education, reported on the ages and numbers of children served, eligibility, administrative location, physical location in the community, state expenditures per child, and state pre-kindergarten program standards that include program duration, teacher-child ratio, class size, teacher qualifications, curriculum and accreditation, and services offered.


  • South Carolina

    Modeled directly after North Carolina’s Smart Start, South Carolina’s First Steps to School Readiness (First Steps) program is a state-level public/private collaboration that creates local partnerships to assess local needs and engage in comprehensive strategic planning to ensure that all children enter first grade healthy and ready to succeed.(72) The initiative was signed into law in June 1999 and is South Carolina’s major state early childhood initiative. As a community-driven effort, county partnership boards include representatives from businesses, faith-based and nonprofit organizations, education, health services, and parents of young children. The partnerships focus on issues, such as early education, health care, quality child care and transportation. Through collaboration, the initiative can better target and intensify critically needed services, assure efficiency of available resources, and eliminate duplicated efforts. Donors, which include business and foundation communities, have to date given more than $8 million.

    Goals for First Steps, as stated in the enabling legislation, are to:

    • give parents the support needed to strengthen families and support their children’s development;
    • increase comprehensive services to reduce children’s risk for physical, developmental and learning problems;
    • promote high quality preschool programs;
    • provide services to ensure all children receive the protection, nutrition and health care needed to thrive and learn, and
    • mobilize communities to enhance services for families and their young children that enable children to enter school healthy and ready to learn.

    State statute mandates an external evaluation of the Fi·st Steps initiative.(73) Since the initiative is in the beginning stages, the first evaluation was designed to study the effectiveness of the implementation, with future studies to include information on child and family outcomes as the program matures. Primary goals of this first evaluation were to determine if First Steps had identified research-based best practices and implemented them effectively to serve the populations for which they were intended. The evaluation data revealed areas of strength and areas for improvement that the state will use to further develop First Step practices and procedures.

In addition to these states that are taking a comprehensive approach to building integrated early childhood systems, other states are taking incremental steps toward building early childhood systems. Examples of states include Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and West Virginia.(74)

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