Low Quality of Many State Preschool Programs Threatens Nation’s Progress
Funding for state pre-K programs has plummeted by more than $700 per child nationwide over the past decade — keeping the quality of many states’ preschools low even as enrollment has grown, a new report from the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) shows.
“Parents would be outraged if we had such low expectations for the first grade or kindergarten,” said Steve Barnett, the longtime director of NIEER, a nonpartisan center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “As economic conditions improve, states need to provide more adequate funding, step up quality, and make pre-K available to all children.”
The State of Preschool 2011 Yearbook ranks states on funding of pre-K programs and their availability to children. The report finds that most states fail to adequately fund their programs, and only five meet NIEER’s 10 benchmarks for preschool quality standards. Only seven states require pre-K teachers to have the same level of preparation and pay as kindergarten teachers, the report explains.
The Yearbook findings, which include NIEER’s data over the past 10 years and recommendations for policymakers, were released at 10 a.m. today at Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
Though enrollment in state pre-K programs has soared over the past 10 years, just 28 percent of all 4-year-olds and only 4 percent of all 3-year-olds are enrolled. Many states expanded enrollment without maintaining quality, Barnett said.
Pre-K funding has dropped by $715 per student, when adjusted for inflation, between the 2001-2002 and 2010-2011 school years. Per-student funding dropped by $145 in 2010-2011 alone compared with the previous year.
Overall funding for state pre-K programs, when adjusted for inflation, dipped for the second straight year, by $60 million nationally in 2010-2011.
The falling levels of funding for preschool are having a major impact on program quality. Only five states met all 10 NIEER benchmarks for state quality standards in 2010-2011, the new report shows. Fifteen states met eight or more quality standards. These standards include important basics such as having well-trained teachers and monitoring quality.
Some states are making progress, while others have taken steps back. Maine, Kentucky, and Nebraska all raised per-child and total pre-K funding by more than 5 percent over the previous year. In addition, five states — Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — increased total funding by more than 5 percent from the previous year.
Twenty-two states increased pre-K enrollment, ranging from small gains in California, Connecticut, Georgia, and Minnesota to 24 percent in Vermont.
But Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Pennsylvania cut total state pre-K spending by 10 percent or more from the previous year.
Nine states cut pre-K enrollment, from 1 percent in Kentucky, Nebraska, and North Carolina, to 12 percent in New Mexico. Arizona entirely eliminated its program.
Counting Arizona, 11 states do not offer pre-K: Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.
In 2010-11, two states gained benchmarks on NIEER’s quality standards, New York and Georgia. Four states — California, Kansas, New York, and South Carolina — lost benchmarks, all for reducing program monitoring.
In addition, several battleground states face additional threats to pre-K programs in 2012:
• California cut spending per child by 10 percent for 2010-2011. The state’s program, which achieves only three of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks for quality, is under threat of further budget reductions.
• Florida ranks first in the nation in pre-K access, with 76 percent of all 4-year-olds attending. But it ranks near the bottom in program quality and spending per child. It has repeatedly cut funding and has not raised per-child spending to adequate levels. Class sizes have been raised, and more funding cuts may be ahead.
• Georgia, the first state to adopt a goal of state pre-K for all children, and which met all 10 NIEER quality standards in 2010-2011, subsequently cut its pre-K school calendar from 10 months to nine, reduced teacher salaries, and increased maximum class sizes to 22 children. Experienced teachers fled the program. Bringing quality back will require a new revenue source because lottery proceeds are no longer sufficient.
• Illinois launched its Preschool for All program in 2006 with the goal of achieving universal access by 2012. Instead, it has cut total enrollment and has seen no appreciable funding increase.
• Massachusetts has cut per-child funding by about 45 percent from 2001-2002 levels and operates two new programs using federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds that will go away. Without new funding, these programs are threatened.
• North Carolina moved its well-regarded More at Four program from the Department of Public Instruction to Health and Human Services to align it with child care, renamed it, and reduced staff and enrollment. The program faces additional possible cuts.
• Texas, which ranks in the bottom half of states for spending per child, reduced spending per child in 2010-2011 and faces the prospect of further cuts.
Barnett praised the federal $500 million Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge that is providing grants to nine states for improving quality, but said more needs to be done. President Obama has called on Congress to increase the federal commitment to states for early childhood education.