Preschool-age children across the country are feeling the impact of the recession as states cut back on early education programs, according to the annual survey of state-funded preschool programs.
"We are seeing a pause in the rapid increase in state preschool programs that we have seen in the last several years," said W. Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University and author of the report, The State of Preschool 2009. "In some states enrollment has been cut back to the lowest levels in many years. Other states have cut funding and quality.
"The immediate future of pre-K seems much more perilous than past trends might suggest," Barnett said. "State budgets will more fully bear the brunt of the recession in 2010 and 2011." Looking ahead, one state, New Mexico, already has cut pre-K spending for 2011 and cuts are being considered in 11 states including Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York and Arizona. In Arizona, the program may be eliminated. More cuts may be coming as state legislatures cope with budget shortfalls.
Barnett called on the Obama administration to provide incentives to encourage states to improve and expand preschool programs. "Mr. President, as a candidate you promised to guarantee access to quality, affordable, early childhood education for every child in America. Now is the time to keep that promise. A $1 billion challenge fund for preschool education, if matched dollar for dollar by the states, could increase enrollments in quality preschools by nearly a half million children," Barnett said.
NIEER released its report at a news conference that focused on the impact of the recession on young children. Participating with Barnett were Marci Young, a project director with the Pew Center on the States, and Julia B. Isaacs, The Child and Family Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Young expressed concern for struggling state programs. "As findings in the NIEER Yearbook underscore, state-funded prekindergarten programs are facing increased challenges," Young said. "If we want to improve our schools, Congress should add funds and incentives into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to build on state investments and strengthen pre-K's proven ability to prepare children for success in school and in life."
"My recent estimate is that nearly one in seven American children, or more than 10 million children, are living with an unemployed parent," Isaacs said. Citing studies by colleagues at Brookings, she said the recession may increase the number of children living in poverty by 5 million.
The NIEER survey ranks all states for the 08-09 school year on enrollment in state-funded preschool programs and the amount states spent per child, and reports how many of NIEER's 10 quality benchmarks a state met.
The report showed that the average amount states spent per child, when adjusted for inflation, declined from $4,179 in 2008 to $4,143 in 2009, ending an upward trend. Real spending per child declined in 24 of 38 states with programs.
Total enrollment and spending increased, but not in every state. In nine states--Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri and Oklahoma-- the percentage of children enrolled actually declined. And 12 states--Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming--provided no state-funded preschool programs.
Other key findings showed modest growth in some areas and vast discrepancies between states:
"With more families facing economic hardship, publicly supported preschool is more important than ever," Barnett said. He cited new research published in the journal Child Development showing that low family income has disproportionately more negative effects on preschool-age children than on older children and adolescents. Those effects include higher school dropout rates, lower income as adults, and greater adult health problems.
"We need to get the recession babies on a progression path so they don't carry the scars for a lifetime," Barnett said.
"The worst economic decline since the Great Depression has sharply reduced the ability of parents to provide for their young children," said Barnett. "As family incomes fall, more children become eligible for and in need of state preschool programs. Yet, at the same time, state pre-K budgets are being squeezed, making it nearly impossible for them to meet the need."
"As pure economic stimulus it is hard to beat pre-K programs," Barnett said. "Pre-K is a high-return investment in our children's future that will help pay for the deficits we run now. In the meantime it generates jobs in local communities, with virtually none of the money spent on imported goods or services.
"The alternative of cheap child care with low standards may reach more families, but it is bad policy, doing little to improve child development or the quality of our future workforce."
The National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org), a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. NIEER is supported through grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others.