The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) this week released its 2011 State of Preschool Yearbook, the most recent edition of an annual report that for the past decade has been shining a spotlight on state-funded prekindergarten programs throughout the nation. The report, which analyzes preschool access, funding, and programming at the national level as well as state by state, helps track trends in early childhood education for parents, educators, and policymakers.
The 2011 Yearbook reveals that more than 1.3 million children now attend state-funded pre-K. Enrollment at age 4 has doubled over the past decade, with state programs now serving 28 percent of 4-year-olds. Combined with Head Start and other public programs, enrollment is up to 45 percent as a national average.
But as NIEER President Steve Barnett is quick to point out, the growth in enrollment has received wide attention while another important fact has been largely overlooked. “Funding slipped as enrollment increased –undercutting efforts to ensure program quality,” he writes on NIEER’s blog, Preschool Matters. “Adjusted for inflation, state funding for pre-K programs plummeted by more than $700 per child over the past decade. The nation took a giant step backward in preschool education even as it appeared to be moving forward.”
Basically, as states expanded enrollment, they cut funding per child. In the past year alone, two-thirds of the states implemented such cuts, and real funding per child dropped $145. Total funding for pre-K fell by $60 million, adjusting for inflation, according to NIEER data.
“A decline of this magnitude should serve as a wake-up call for parents and policy leaders about how weak our commitment has become to preparing today’s preschoolers to succeed in school and later find good jobs in a competitive global economy,” Barnett writes, noting that the backslide is even more striking against a growing mountain of evidence showing that quality early childhood education is one of the most valuable public investments we can make.
How does our home state of Pennsylvania stack up? Pre-K enrollment stayed relatively steady for 2010-11, with a slight gain for age 3 offsetting a slight decline for age 4. But in terms of funding, Pennsylvania won the dubious distinction of being one of six states to cut total pre-K spending by 10 percent or more from the previous year, along with Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Oregon.
In terms of access to pre-K for 4-year-olds, Pennsylvania ranks 25th in the nation. In terms of all reported spending, it ranks 20th. The good news for the state, if you can call it that, is that quality standards do not seem to have fallen significantly over the past year. But look closely and you’ll see that three out of four of the state’s state-funded preschool initiatives met six or fewer of the benchmarks for adequate program quality standards as set by NIEER. The Kindergarten for 4-Year-Olds and School Based Pre-K programs met only three out of 10 benchmarks, missing such basics as minimum class size and student-to-teacher ratios. So, is holding steady at these levels really cause for celebration?
Based on the results of this year’s report, NIEER’s Barnett made a simple plea: “As states begin to recover economically, they should expand high-quality pre-K and invest more in these effective programs. By the end of the next decade voluntary high-quality public pre-K should be a choice for every American 4-year-old and for all 3-year-olds in poverty.”
For more on this topic, check out the following links:
- NIEER’s 2011 State of Preschool Yearbook: Pennsylvania State Profile
- “Comparing Pre-K and K-12 Spending Trends: It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid.” Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook. Education Week. 4/11/12.
- “Early Learning Challenge Winners Stalled in 2011 State Pre-K Funding.” Early Ed Watch. 4/10/12.
- “States Up for Early-Learning Grants Rank Well in Preschool Report.” Early Years, Education Week. 4/10/12
- “Pre-K Spending Per Child Drops Below Levels of Nearly a Decade Ago.” The Associated Press. 4/10/12.