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More states expanding preschool programs but quality still lags

May 16, 2018
Ashley Hopkinson
Ed Source

California has increased the number of 3-year-olds enrolled in state-funded preschool programs over the last 10 years, but needs to improve preschool quality, including teacher qualifications, professional development and class size.

Those are among the findings in The State of Preschool 2017 report, by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The report, released last month, tracks program quality, state spending and enrollment in preschool programs. It also includes a companion report titled “Supporting Dual Language Learners in State-Funded Preschool,” which assesses how states address the needs of preschoolers whose parents speak both English and another language at home.

In 2002, when researchers began doing a state-by-state analysis, only three states and the District of Columbia enrolled more than one-third of their 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool. Now 16 states, including California, do so. However enrollment of 3-year-olds in publicly funded programs nationwide increased from less than 3 percent in 2002 to only 5 percent in 2017 and there are still too few programs for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds meeting standards for high quality, the report states.

In the report, California ranked 8th in the nation for enrollment, with 10.9 percent of 3-year-olds enrolled in state-funded preschool programs. It ranked 14th for the number of 4-year-olds enrolled, at 36.6 percent. Among the states serving the largest number of preschoolers, California, New York and Texas rank among the lowest for meeting quality standards, said Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The District of Columbia, ranked 1st for providing access to public preschool programs, enrolls 87.9 percent of its 4-year-olds and 66 percent of its 3-year-olds, the report states. The District of Columbia serves fewer students than California. Total public preschool enrollment for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the District of Columbia is 12,847, compared with 235,566 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds enrolled in state preschool programs in California. However, the size of California’s preschool population is the reason it’s critical to prioritize quality standards, Barnett said. All states need to focus on “quality over quantity,” he said.