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Annual Survey Finds High-Quality State Preschool Programs Are the Exception, Not the Rule

November 22, 2004

Washington, Nov. 22 — The second annual survey of state preschool programs found a huge disparity in availability from state to state and even within state boundaries. The report concludes that “across our nation, high-quality and readily available state-funded preschool programs are the exception rather than the rule.”

The State of Preschool: 2004 State Preschool Yearbook released today reports that nationally, total enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds in state-funded programs rose in the past school year, but spending per preschool student fell. Twenty-one states actually cut funding to preschool programs. Twelve states had no state-financed programs at all.

The Yearbook is a project of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), established by The Pew Charitable Trusts to support early childhood education initiatives by providing objective, nonpartisan research-based information. Covering the school year 2002-2003, the report cited research showing that children from disadvantaged families who attend high-quality pre-school programs acquire more education, earn more money, commit fewer crimes and become more responsible citizens than children from similar families who do not attend high-quality preschool. This leads to a better-educated, more productive workforce, enhancing the ability of states and communities to sustain economic growth and compete in the global marketplace, according to the research.

“The instability of funding is particularly disturbing — and unwise, given that few other state expenditures are so important to our children’s future or return so much on the state’s investment,” said NIEER director W. Steven Barnett of Rutgers University. “There would be public outcry were such cuts levied on kindergarten or first grade. The education of younger children is no less deserving of protection from the year-to-year swings in the economy.”

The costs of high-quality prekindergarten “are modest relative to overall state budgets,” the Yearbook reported. “If states simply paid for the same share of preschool education that they do for K–12, the added cost would be just a bit more than one penny per dollar of overall state spending.”

NIEER recommended that states increase funding to improve access to and quality of their programs and that the federal government increase its investment in prekindergarten by offering to match state government spending that is accompanied by high standards.

The Yearbook dealt at length with the wide disparities that exist, not only in the availability of preschool programs, but also in their quality.

“The state preschool picture across the United States is one of haves and have-nots, with notable regional differences,” the Yearbook said. “The access to a good education depends on where a child lives and the income of the family. Parents looking for a state where state-funded preschool is open to all families will find only two states [Georgia and Oklahoma] from which to choose.”

As to quality, the survey found only 13 state programs that required teachers to have a BA degree and specialized training in preschool education.

On the positive side, the survey found that New Jersey, North Carolina, and Louisiana increased funding substantially. In terms of access, Louisiana, Kansas, and North Carolina made noteworthy gains.

The wide-ranging analyses and commentary accompanying the state-by-state data challenged some widely held assumptions and raised provocative issues, for instance:

  • Families in the western states have less access to prekindergarten programs for their children than families in the rest of the country.

  • Families with incomes just below the national average ($40,000-$50,000) have less access to high-quality preschool than poorer or wealthier families. The wealthy families can afford good private programs. Poorer families are more likely to have access to targeted government-funded programs — though, because of inadequate funding and difficulty in identifying eligible families, almost half of poor children do not benefit from such programs.

  • Targeted programs such as federal Head Start often fail to enroll all children living in poverty. The report recommends that “more states should follow the lead of Georgia and Oklahoma to expand access for all children and at the same time ensure that children with the greatest needs are included in prekindergarten and receive the services necessary to fully support their learning and development.”

  • Better education for their children is the primary factor that motivates parents to seek high quality prekindergarten programs, not the need for child care so the parents can work.

The Yearbook concentrates on state-financed prekindergarten programs and not federal Head Start or private programs receiving no state funding. It lists a “dirty dozen” states with no state-funded prekindergarten programs. They are Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. More than 900,000 children ages 3 and 4 live in those states.

The 38 states with preschool initiatives were ranked on access to and resources committed to preschool education. Quality was measured against 10 research-based benchmarks. The major findings were:


  • Thirty-eight states funded one or more state prekindergarten initiatives, serving a total of nearly 740,000 children (about 45,000 more than the previous year).

  • Georgia and Oklahoma continued to be the only states that made prekindergarten universally available to children. Across the United States, only one out of 10 children ages 3 and 4 was participating in state preschool programs, as most states targeted programs to serve economically or otherwise disadvantaged children.

  • Twenty states enrolled at least 10 percent of their 4-year-olds in state preschool programs. There is considerably less emphasis on state-funded prekindergarten for 3-year-olds — a fact borne out by the fact that only 3 states served 10 percent or more of their 3-year-olds.

  • Half the states had increases in enrollments in 2003. The biggest gains, exceeding 50 percent, occurred in Nebraska, Nevada and North Carolina. Among the biggest losses were a 50 percent drop in New Mexico and ten percent drop in Massachusetts.


  • Only one state, Arkansas, met all ten of NIEER’s quality benchmarks. Initiatives in Illinois, North Carolina and New Jersey’s Abbott program met nine of the 10 benchmarks. Twenty state initiatives met five or fewer of the 10 benchmarks.

  • Only 13 state prekindergarten initiatives required teachers to have both a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education. In addition, only 13 programs required preschool teachers to be paid comparably to public school teachers for older children, even though adequate compensation is necessary for attracting and retaining the most qualified and effective teachers.


  • State funding for prekindergarten initiatives totaled $2.54 billion. Over three-fifths of this funding was from five states—California, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

  • Compared to the previous year, total state spending (adjusted for inflation) rose by $90 million, or 4 percent. However, state funding per child enrolled decreased by $90.

  • State Spending per child enrolled in state-funded preschool ranged from less than $1,000 in Maryland to more than $8,700 in New Jersey. State spending per child averaged about $3,500, less than half the total funding provided per child by federal Head Start or public K–12 education. Local schools add an unknown, but likely significant, amount of resources.

  • Sixteen states increased preschool spending in 2002- 2003. The largest increase was $110 million in New Jersey followed by $24 million in North Carolina. Funding decreased in 21 states. The decrease exceeded ten percent in Missouri, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, Ohio and Iowa.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (, a unit of 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.

The Pew Charitable Trusts ( serve the public interest by providing information, policy solutions and support for civic life. Based in Philadelphia, with an office in Washington, D.C., the Trusts make investments to provide organizations and citizens with fact-based research and practical solutions for challenging issues. With approximately $4.1 billion in dedicated assets, in 2003 the Trusts committed more than $143 million to 151 nonprofit organizations.