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State Investment in Pre-k Programs, 2001-2010: A Mixed-Methods Evaluation of the Influence of Policy Networks Open Access

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Between 1980 and 2000, the majority of U.S. states adopted pre-k programs, such that by the end of the millennium, 39 states had programs in place. In the subsequent decade, while only a handful of new programs were enacted, National Institute for Early Education Research data show that average levels of both access for four-year-olds to state pre-k programs and the quality of those programs increased at substantial and approximately equal rates. This pattern represents an unusual instance of program expansion without a loss of quality, or "scaling up." At the same time, state levels of access and quality in 2010 still varied widely. This research combines statistical analyses with qualitative work to determine the roles played by factors both internal and external to states in scaling up, and in differential types and levels of investment across states. In particular, it explores the influence of the evolving national pre-k policy network and the distinct strategies that emerged within it and have divided it to some extent. The quantitative analyses fail to support the hypothesized influence of national policy networks. Nor do the statistical results suggest strong influences from state economic capacity or political ideology. However, a closer look suggests that the impact of these factors may be mediated by the impact of the Great Recession on state budgets between 2007 and 2010. Case studies of Arizona, Connecticut, Ohio, and Virginia illustrate those impacts. They also suggest that the national pre-k policy network has, indeed, had a greater influence on some states than on others, and that state early childhood policy communities and the policy entrepreneurs embedded within them vary in their cohesiveness and capacity. These latter findings help explain differential state success in scaling up pre-k and suggest avenues for both policy advocacy and future research.

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