State-Funded Preschool Programs Serving More Children, But Spending Less Per Child

State-Funded Preschool Programs Serving More Children, But Spending Less Per Child

The annual report on state preschool initiatives shows that state-funded programs increased enrollment by more than 100,000 4 year olds from 2002 to 2005, but state spending per child is down and enrollment actually declined in 11 states.

The State of Preschool: 2005 State Preschool Yearbook was released here by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) based at Rutgers University. It ranks all 50 states on access to, resources for and quality of state preschool initiatives in the '05 school year (2004-05) and reported on changes since the '02 school year (2001-02).

When NIEER began reporting on state-funded preschool programs for ‘02, 38 states were funding programs and enrolling 700,000 3- and 4-year old-children. By ‘05, those states served more than 800,000 children.

“This represents an astounding jump of 16 percent enrollment during those four years,” said NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett. “When ‘06 is reported, a new program in Florida will likely add another 100,000 4 year olds to the total.”

However, 12 states had no state-funded preschool programs and over the four-year period, funding shortfalls produced enrollment declines in 11 states. “Clearly, these states do not yet treat prekindergarten as real education to be delivered in good and bad financial times,” Barnett said.

The Pew Charitable Trusts provides funding for NIEER's research and the Yearbook. Sue Urahn, Pew's director of state policy initiatives said "this year's Yearbook shows that states have made great progress in making quality preschool available to more kids, but it also shows that we have a very long way to go before this country makes quality programs available to all 3 and 4 year olds so that they can enter school ready to learn."

Despite difficult times for state budgets, the Yearbook showed that total state spending on preschool across the nation grew by 7.5 percent over the four years, even after adjusting for inflation, from $2.6 billion to more than $2.8 billion.

“Yet, when we combine the spending and enrollment data to calculate state spending per pupil, we find inflation-adjusted state spending per child declined by 7.3 percent to $3,551 because enrollment outpaced funding,” said Barnett. In 27 of 38 states with prekindergarten programs, the state per child expenditure fell in inflation-adjusted dollars.

“This pattern of expansion and contraction is unfortunate,” Barnett said. “A stable, highly effective, educational system for young children will remain out of reach as long as policymakers find it acceptable to cut preschool education whenever budgets become tight.”

Growth in quality of programs also has been slow to develop, according to the Yearbook. Only Arkansas met all 10 of NIEER's quality benchmarks while five state programs achieved nine of the 10: Alabama, Illinois, North Carolina, Tennessee and New Jersey's Abbott Program.

More than half of states with programs still do not require all teachers to have bachelor's degrees. Recent research by NIEER showed that children in state programs requiring teachers to have bachelor's degrees outperformed in language and math children from programs without similar degree requirements.

The Yearbook finds that only one state, Oklahoma, offered preschool education to virtually all children at age 4 with over 90 percent enrolled in a state or federal program. Next highest in access was Georgia, where 67 percent of the 4 year olds attended a public preschool program. Six of seven states serving more than 30 percent of their 4 year olds in state prekindergarten were in the South: Texas, West Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina in addition to Oklahoma and Georgia.

Research shows that high-quality preschool improves later high school graduation rates and college attendance, employment and earnings, even marriage rates. It lessens future crime and delinquency and unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drug use. In economic terms, high quality preschool returns to the individual and the public up to $17 on every $1 invested.

Noting that many economically advanced countries provide free, high quality preschool for all children, Barnett said in the United States “unlike children in the K-12 system, preschoolers are not guaranteed any education at all, much less a high-quality education.

“This situation could be remedied at costs that are quite small relative to other government expenditures,” Barnett said. “Minimal parity with K-12 spending for a half-day program could be achieved for only $125 million. Adequately funded programs could be delivered to all children from low- income families with $1.5 to $3 billion in new state commitments. An adequate state share to serve all children would require $8 to $12 billion in new state commitments.” This assumes Head Start continues at its present level and the costs are shared with local schools, he said.

“Given the importance of children's early years and the contributions of quality preschool education to children's future success, it is difficult to understand how failure to make these improvements can be justified,” Barnett said.

Major findings from the NIEER study include:

  • In ‘05, 38 states each funded one or more state prekindergarten initiatives. There were 12 states without state- funded prekindergarten, although one of those states, Florida, began a large-scale initiative during the ‘06 school year. The other states without programs were Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. 
  • State initiatives served more than 800,000 children during the '05 school year, an increase of about 110,000 children since NIEER began tracking access in ‘02. 
  • In ‘05, 17 percent of the nation's 4 year olds were enrolled, an increase from 14 percent in 2001-02. Meanwhile, only 3 percent of the nation's 3 year olds were enrolled during ‘05, the same percentage served in ‘02. State programs, Head Start and preschool special education programs collectively served 35 percent of the nation's 4 year olds. 
  • Despite the overall pattern of growth, Pre-K enrollment actually declined in 11 states: Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and Washington. 
  • Some states, appear to have reduced enrollment of 3 year olds in order to increase or maintain the number of 4- year-olds served. These states include Maryland, New York, Texas and West Virginia.
Quality Standards
  • Arkansas was the only state that met all 10 of NIEER's quality benchmarks. Pre-K initiatives in Alabama, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Tennessee, met nine of the 10 benchmarks. Twentyone state initiatives met five or fewer benchmarks. 
  • Twenty-one states did not require all state preschool teachers to hold at least a bachelor's degree. 
  • Only four state programs (Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia) made policy changes resulting in real improvements to their quality standards between the ‘03 and ‘05 program years. 
  • Twenty-six states required all state preschool programs to limit class sizes to 20 or fewer children.
  • For the nation as a whole, state prekindergarten spending grew 7.5 percent from ‘02 to ‘05, after adjusting for inflation. 
  • Because enrollment growth outpaced increases in state funding, there was a 7.3 percent decline in inflation-adjusted per-child spending from ‘02 to ‘05. 
  • Average state spending per child enrolled was $3,551 in 05. The top-ranked state, New Jersey ($9,305 per child), spent 10 times more than the lowest ranked state, Maryland ($ 721 per child).

The National Institute for Early Education Research (, 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.