This is part of an occasional series highlighting the contributions of doctoral students to UNC School of Education educational research endeavors.
What factors have made some states more likely than others to adopt — or to expand — pre-kindergarten opportunities for children?
That’s what a team of researchers led by Lora Cohen-Vogel, the Frank A. Daniels, Jr. Distinguished Professor at the UNC School of Education, sought to determine in a study published by Educational Policy in October.
Cohen-Vogel’s team included three researchers — James Sadler, Michael Little, and Becca Merrill — who worked with Cohen-Vogel as doctoral students in the Policy, Leadership and School Improvement strand of the Ph.D. program. Sadler is now writing his dissertation. Little is an assistant professor at the College of Education at N.C. State University. Merrill is a researcher at Education Northwest in Portland, Oregon. The other co-author was F. Chris Curran, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Florida.
The study — entitled “The Adoption of Public Pre-Kindergarten among the American States: An Event History Analysis” — sought to determine the influence of a set of predictors on states’ decisions to adopt public pre-K programs.
The findings are important because five states have not yet adopted a public pre-K program, meaning that each year nearly a quarter million 4-year-olds do not have access to the benefits of pre-K programs. Additionally, the factors that influence adoption of public pre-K programs also may influence states’ decisions to expand existing pre-K programs. The findings also may shed light for advocates seeking to scale other programs and interventions in early childhood education, the authors say.
The study analyzed the likelihood that a state will adopt a pre-K program in a specific year during the period 1983-2017 — during which 37 states adopted pre-K programs — based on the following sets of variables.
Lora Cohen-Vogel, James Sadler, Michael H. Little, Becca Merrill, and F. Chris Curran. The adoption of public pre-kindergarten among the American states: An Event History Analysis. Educational Policy. https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904820961002
Political conditions hypotheses:
• States with a higher percentage of Republican legislators will be less likely to adopt a pre-K program.
• States with a Republican governor will be less likely to adopt a pre-K program.
• States with upcoming gubernatorial elections will be more likely to adopt a pre-K program.
• States with a more professional legislature will be more likely to adopt a pre-K program.
• States with high proportions of women legislators will be more likely to adopt a pre-K program.
Economic conditions hypotheses:
• States with higher unemployment rates will be less likely to adopt a pre-K program.
• States with lower median family incomes will be less likely to adopt a pre-K program.
Educational conditions hypotheses:
• States with higher levels of public expenditures per pupil on education will be more likely to adopt a pre-K program.
• States that were early adopters of university kindergarten will be more likely to adopt a pre-K program.
• States with larger Head Start expenditures relative to their age 4 populations will be more likely to adopt a pre-K program.
Demographic conditions hypothesis:
• States with higher percentages of Black and Hispanic residents will be more likely to adopt a pre-K program.
Geographic diffusion hypothesis:
• States with a higher number of regional neighbors with state-funded pre-K will be more likely to adopt a pre-K program.
Only a subset of all the variables studied appeared to have influence over a state’s decision to adopt a pre-K program.
Two political conditions — the percentage of Republicans in the state legislature and legislative professionalism were found to be predictive. The percentage of Republican representation in a legislature was negatively associated with pre-K adoption, with each one percentage point increase of Republican representation associated with a likelihood decrease of 3.1 percent. Legislative professionalism — defined based on legislative salaries and whether the elected position is considered full- or part-time — is also positively associated with pre-K adoption.
The study also found that higher unemployment rates were associated with a state’s likelihood of adoption.
Additionally, the study found that “geographic diffusion” — the idea that neighboring states’ adoption of pre-K programs may influence a state’s adoption decision — also had influence. The study found a significant and positive relationship between the number of states within a census region that had adopted pre-K with the likelihood that a state will adopt a pre-K program.
Five states have not adopted pre-K programs, and the findings may inform advocates and policymakers working to launch early childhood programs there.
Additionally, the factors that influence pre-K adoption may also influence other early childhood education efforts, such as expanding eligibility of pre-K programs. As of 2017, 16 state pre-K programs served less than 20% of 4-year-olds in those states and only nine states served more than 50% of their 4-year-olds.