Economy Threatens Impressive Expansion of State Pre-K Programs

  • April 08, 2009

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The annual survey of state-funded preschool programs shows impressive expansion in enrollment and spending. However, the recession may reverse the trend, curtailing early education opportunities for children in lower and middle-income families.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released The State of Preschool 2008 at a news conference here today. Key findings included:

  • Enrollment increased by more than 108,000 children. More than 1.1 million children attended state-funded preschool education, 973,178 at age 4 alone.
  • Thirty-three of the 38 states with state-funded programs increased enrollment.
  • Based on NIEER's Quality Standards Checklist, 11 states improved the quality of their preschool programs. Only one fell back.
  • State funding for pre-K rose to almost $4.6 billion. Funding for state pre-K from all reported sources exceeded $5.2 billion, an increase of nearly $1 billion (23 percent) over the previous year.

On a less positive note, whether or not a child receives high-quality preschool education depends on where his or her family lives. Twelve states provided no state-funded preschool in 2008.

Based at Rutgers University, NIEER has produced an annual report on state preschool programs since 2002.

Due to the economy and declining state revenues, the immediate future of state-funded preschool is uncertain. In most states, expenditures on pre-K are entirely discretionary and therefore easier to cut than expenditures for K-12 education and other programs.

NIEER Director Steve Barnett said states are considering enrollment cuts, reductions in program standards, and postponement of expansion plans even with the availability of new federal stimulus funds.

Of the 38 states with state-funded preschool, cuts are likely in at least nine including some of the biggest states – California, Florida, New York, and North Carolina.

Whatever state and federal governments may do to cope with the current economic crisis, Barnett said, "a federal initiative is needed to support early learning and development.

"We propose that the federal government commit to doubling the rate of growth in state pre-K while raising state quality standards so that by the year 2020 all 4-year-olds in America will have access to a good education. To do this, the federal government should match state spending with up to $2,500 for every additional child enrolled in state pre-K programs meeting basic quality standards. In addition, the federal government should facilitate increased integration of child care, Head Start, and state pre-K.

"If the federal government adopts such a course, all of our children will have a brighter future. If it does not, disparities in early education and school readiness will continue to increase, and another generation will pass without the benefits of quality pre-K for all."

Currently, Oklahoma remains the only state where virtually every child can start school at age 4. In at least eight other states, more than half of 4-year-olds attend a public preschool program of some kind.

At the other end of the spectrum, are the 12 states that have no regular state preschool education program: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. In eight states, less than 20 percent of children are enrolled in a public preschool program at age 4 even taking into account preschool special education and Head Start.

Most states meet a majority of the NIEER's 10 benchmarks for program quality standards, but five states meet fewer than half. These states include three of the four states with the largest populations and numbers of children in pre-K-- California, Texas and Florida.

Texas is the only state that fails to limit both maximum class size and staff-child ratio. California and Maine have limits on staff-child ratio but no class size limit. Most other states limit classes to 20 or fewer children with a teacher and an assistant.

In 2008, enrollment of 3-year-olds continued to rise, though less rapidly than at age 4. The leader in serving 3-year-olds in state pre-K is Illinois, which is the only state committed to serving all 3-year-olds, but it is closely followed by Arkansas. Four states, Illinois, Arkansas, Vermont and New Jersey serve at least 20 percent of children at age 3 in general and special education programs.

Research shows that high-quality pre-K can help improve the educational success of all children and by doing so, decrease school failure and dropout rates, and crime and delinquency. In addition, high-quality preschool education has been found to improve economic productivity and health.