Economics and Finance

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The view of preschool as welfare influences the way preschool education is financed and helps explain why the US doesn’t offer every child a quality preschool education. Preschool funding is much more heavily dependent on a patchwork of federal programs -- a tradition more reflective of social insurance programs than public education, which is primarily a state and local responsibility. As a result in most states preschool programs including Head Start and subsidized child care target only the most vulnerable young children -- a noble goal for sure, but even these programs fail to reach most of the intended beneficiaries and funding levels are far from adequate for a quality early education.

If the US public was more convinced of the educational value of pre-K, would we see more state and local financial resources being invested? It seems likely.  Most states do provide some funding for preschool and child care, but local funding is much less common.  By contrast, 45% of public K-12 education comes from local taxes, the large majority from property tax receipts. State resources account for another 47% of spending. The rest -- just 8% -- is filled by federal funds.  If the local share for early childhood programs were equal to that for K-12, funding for state pre-K programs would just about double. 

Taking a broader view including Head Start and state funded pre-K, just over half of the dollars come from federal government financing (51%), with states providing 39% and just 9% deriving from local sources. With a few notable exceptions, such as Maine, Oklahoma, and West Virginal, most states have virtually no local tax support for public early education programs.

In this report we explore the extent to which 41 states, the District of Columbia, and three large cities support high-quality state-funded preschool education. The framework for our assessment of state capacity is provided by “15 essential elements” of high-quality pre-K. These can be categorized into three clusters: enabling environment, rigorous policies, and strong practices. We believe that our assessments of the extent to which each element is present in each state will be useful to policy makers, researchers, and others interested in understanding how much progress each state has made and what the opportunities and barriers may be for further progress. The ratings apply to policies as of June 30, 2016.

In 2013, preschool education received more attention in the media and public policy circles than it has for some time, in part because of a series of high-profile proposals to expand access to quality pre-K.  The scientific basis for these proposed expansions of quality pre-K is impressive.  This paper brings to bear the full weight of the evidence to address the following questions:

  • What does all the evidence say about effective preschool education and long-term cognitive benefits?
  • What are the estimated effects of state and local pre-K programs in more recent years?
  • Is Head Start ineffective? 
  • Can government improve the quality of public preschool education? 
  • If states expand pre-K with temporary federal matching funds, what happens to state education budgets when that federal money is not available?

NIEER projects that in 2030 all but 1 state would spend less on education from pre-K through grade 12 under federal proposals that incentivize states to raise pre-K quality standards, offer a full school day, and serve all children under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. 

Presentation by NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett at the Congressional Briefing on April 30, 2013 accompanying the release of The State of Preschool 2012: State Preschool Yearbook in Washington, DC.

Remarks and presentation by NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett at the release of The State of Preschool 2012: State Preschool Yearbook in Washington, DC.

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