Georgia, New Jersey and Oklahoma outpace the nation in providing high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year- olds while most states lag in early education efforts, according to a report released Feb. 19.
The study, by the National Institute for Early Education Research, ranked states by the number of children in state-funded preschools, the amount spent per preschooler and a checklist of 10 benchmarks.
Forty states provide some preschool program, enrolling 14.8 percent of the nation's 4-year-olds and 3 percent of 3-year-olds, according to the study. Only two states, Massachusetts and New Jersey, enroll more than 10 percent of their 3-year-olds. Twenty states enroll fewer than 10 percent of their 4-year-olds in public preschool programs. Florida and Rhode Island did not provide information on their public preschools.
The national survey was compiled by NIEER, a non-partisan research unit of Rutgers University that is funded in part by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.
Oklahoma, which has gradually expanded its program since it began in 1980, has the highest percentage of 4-year-olds participating, 57 percent, and meets eight out of 10 quality standards measured by the study.
The report looked at standards such as the minimum level of teacher training, maximum class size, whether the program provides family support services and health screening, and whether it has a statewide curriculum. For instance, Oklahoma's program requires that teachers have a bachelor's degree and state certification.
"Everyone has seen the benefits of having children who come to school ready to learn. The evidence is in the classroom."" said Kym Koch, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma's Gov. Brad Henry (D).
W. Steven Barnett, one of the report's authors, told Stateline.org that preschool sets the foundation for the entire school career. "Learning begets learning. The years before kindergarten have very rapid brain growth and cognitive development," he said.
When children start kindergarten prepared to learn, they are more likely to move into a cycle of academic success that propels them through elementary and secondary education and through college, he said.
On the other hand, children who start with academic gaps even in kindergarten have a harder time catching up and have a greater incidence of behavioral problems throughout their school years, Barnett said.
Georgia was the first state to offer preschool to all 4-year-olds, and now enrolls 53 percent of that age group. Georgia met seven of the report's quality standards. It does not require teachers to have four-year degrees or to be certified, but it pays schools more if the teachers are more qualified.
New Jersey offers free preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds in 30 school districts that have the highest number of disadvantaged children. A certified teacher and aide are in each classroom of 15 students. The state ranks second nationally in the amount it spends per-child on preschool.
"Few [states] set high standards and fewer still provide adequate funding," according to an executive summary of the report. "Even the disadvantaged children targeted by most state preschool initiatives are not assured of access to high-quality programs. Most children and their families receive even less help."
While states spent $2.4 billion for preschool programs in 2001-2002, 10 states were responsible for 83 percent of that amount. Only New Jersey and Oregon spent more per-child on preschool than the federal Head Start amount of $6,934. Head Start provides meals, education and social services for more than 13 percent of the nation's 3- and 4-year-olds at a cost of $6.5 billion.
Minnesota supplements the Head Start program with state money. But the cost of creating a separate statewide preschool program is too great, said Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. Last year Minnesota had a $4.6 billion shortfall in the state budget, he said, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) would rather invest in starting full-day kindergarten statewide before he thinks about preschool.
States without any public preschool are Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
There is more to early childhood education than academics, Barnett said. It also affects the U.S. economy. Within the past three decades, most developed countries have passed the United States in providing universal preschool. Those countries also have increased the number of children that go on to higher education. "We fell asleep, and they passed us," he said.