State-funded preschool continues to be the most rapidly expanding segment of the U.S. educational system but in many states the commitment to early education is fickle: funding is as likely to be cut as it is to be increased. That's the message of the authoritative annual review of state preschool programs produced by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), based at Rutgers University. The report, The State of Preschool: 2006 State Preschool Yearbook, was released here today.
"Lack of stable funding poses an enormous problem for parents of young children and for society generally," said NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett.
"State legislatures which wouldn't think about cutting the number of first graders or reducing the budget for kindergarten, seemingly have little compunction about slashing preschool," Barnett said. "Low and moderate income working parents need to know from year to year whether they can count on their state to provide quality preschool for their children or whether they'll have to find it on the open market where the cost can exceed college tuition.
"Research clearly shows that high-quality preschool education improves later school success, employment and earnings. It has lessened crime and delinquency and unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drug use. In economic terms, high-quality preschool has returned to the individual and the public up to $17 on every $1 invested."
NIEER began tracking state-funded preschool programs in the 2001-2002 school year. The current Yearbook reports on the 2005-2006 school year. Each state is ranked in three categories: access (how many children are served), resources (how much is spent per child) and quality (how many of 10 benchmarks for quality standards does each state meet). The project is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Twelve states had no state-funded preschool programs in 2005-2006. They were Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
The launch of Florida's Voluntary Prekindergarten for all 4 year olds in 2005-2006 had a significant impact on the national picture. In its first year, the Florida program enrolled 105,896 children, but spent only $2,165 per child (35th of the 38 states with programs) and met only four of NIEER's ten quality benchmarks.
Nationally, total enrollment in state pre-K programs was 942,766, an increase of 130,709. Most states increased enrollment, but in nine states enrollment went down. Oklahoma (70 percent enrollment) and Georgia (51 percent enrollment) were the only states to serve more than half of their 4-year-olds. In addition to being the only state closing in on universal enrollment, Oklahoma did so with high standards.
Total state spending for prekindergarten was nearly $3.3 billion, an increase of 13 percent from the previous year. However, inflation-adjusted spending per child declined in 25 of 37 states (Florida was new). In other words, real spending per child declined in twice as many states as it increased. Worse yet, nominal spending per child (that is, without any adjustment for inflation) declined in 14 states.
After adjusting for inflation, funding per child fell to the lowest level since NIEER began collecting such data. In 2001-2002, states spent $4,171 per child in today's dollars; last year they spent $3,482 per child.
"This year's Yearbook shows that while states are embracing pre-school, they aren't necessarily providing the funding necessary to ensure the quality that is needed," said Sara Watson, Senior Program Officer, State Policy Initiatives of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which provides financial support for the project. "The economic benefits so many policy makers strive for when they fund state programs depend on high-quality programs to return results. If states don't fund preschool at a level that ensures quality, they are putting our children and our country's future at risk."
Sixteen states raised their quality standards enough to meet NIEER benchmarks that they had not previously met. Two states, Alabama and North Carolina, met all ten of the NIEER quality benchmarks. At the other extreme, nine states failed to meet half or more of the benchmarks.
Programs that meet the benchmarks correspond at least roughly in their design to programs demonstrated to produce substantial gains in children's learning and school success.
Key findings for 2005-2006 were:
Four states-Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, and South Carolina-cut total funding for preschool education by more than two percent. California, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Texas also spent less in 2005-2006 than the previous year after adjusting for inflation.
Read The State of Preschool: 2006 State Preschool Yearbook on the NIEER Website.