Steven Barnett: Thoughts on the State of Preschool

Today I visited a wonderful publicly funded preschool program run by the AppleTree Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.  In D.C., 40 percent of 4-year-olds attend the District’s preschool programs and nearly a quarter of the 3-year-olds.  The programs meet high standards and are adequately funded.  I don’t know if all of them are up to the high standards of AppleTree, but I do know that far too few children in the rest of the nation have the opportunity to attend such programs.  In fact, I think we may have reached a peak in 2009 when one-quarter of all children attended a state pre-K program at age 4, and things have turned worse since.

Preschool-age children across the country are feeling the impact of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Many parents no longer can afford pre-K for their children.  Yet, at a time when the need for publicly funded preschools is growing in almost every state, the recession has led states to cut back on early education programs. Young children are caught in this squeeze play.

The State of Preschool 2009, a survey that ranks each state’s support for preschool education and tracks those efforts over time, shows a pause in what had been a rapid increase in state preschool programs.  In some states enrollment has been cut back to the lowest levels in many years. Other states have cut quality standards or reduced the amount they spend per child.

As a result, the immediate future of pre-K seems much more perilous than past trends might suggest. Looking ahead, some states have already cut pre-K spending for 2011, including Arizona which has totally eliminated funding for preschool.  Cuts are being intensely debated in other states.

We hope that our 2009 survey’s data on enrollment, quality standards, and funding will help inform these debates.  I will briefly review the results.

Last year total enrollment in state-funded pre-K increased, but not in every state.  In nine states—Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Oklahoma— the percentage of children enrolled actually declined. Although some of these declines are quite small, the need has increased, and many American children, particularly those in middle-income working families lack access to quality preschool education.

Twelve states—Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming—provided no state-funded preschool programs.

Our study finds that by 2009 states had reversed a brief upward trend and inflation-adjusted spending per child declined to $4,143.

The 2009 Preschool Yearbook reveals disturbing differences across states.

  • One-quarter of all 4-year-olds attended state-funded preschool education, but enrollment varies from none in 12 states to most in several others (OK, FL, GA, VT, WV). Oklahoma is still the only state where almost every child has the opportunity to attend a quality preschool education program at age 4.  Other states have committed to this goal, but have not reached it.
  • Twenty-three of 38 states did not require well-qualified teachers in every classroom.
  • Six states had programs that met fewer than half of our 10 benchmarks for quality standards including three states serving tremendous numbers of children — California, Texas, and Florida.
  • The Institute’s list of top 10 states for pre-K, is topped by Oklahoma and includes Arkansas, West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Louisiana, and Tennessee.   The top 10 ranking is based on enrollment, quality standards, funding adequacy, and evidence of program effectiveness.

Why do these statistics on pre-K matter?  High-quality pre-K is an investment in the future that pays far more than it costs.  This is true year in and year out, but the worst economic decline since the Great Depression has sharply reduced the ability of parents to provide for their young children.  Falling family incomes make more children eligible for and in need of state preschool programs.  We need to put the recession babies on a progression path so they don’t carry the scars for a lifetime.

State pre-K programs need to grow to meet this challenge.  These are hard times for state budgets, but the needs of our young children should come first in difficult times. States should put investments first like pre-K – investments that create jobs now and in the future, and when necessary cut spending that does not create future growth and prosperity to make room for pre-K.

At the federal level, candidate Barack Obama promised to “guarantee access to quality, affordable, early childhood education for every child in America.” Mr. President, now is the time to keep that promise.  A $1 billion challenge fund for preschool education, if matched dollar for dollar by the states, could increase enrollments in quality preschools by nearly a half million children.  America’s children.


  1. dora sheri on

    with all brain study being done in which we know how important preschool is why is there any question of if we should have pre-k. not only do we need pre-k for four year olds we need it for three year olds.

    being a preschool teacher i see these children come to school for the first time at age four and they can’t even hold a crayon, have never been exposed to books, math, science, or any socializatin with other children. this is the only country that does not beleive in the importance of education, we are always cutting back and its our children’s education were we look to cut first. arts science physical education should not be cut. pay teachers better. it is the most important investment for the future of our country.

  2. We need to put the recession babies on a progression path so they don’t carry the scars for a lifetime.

    Steve, this is a fantastic quote. It puts the truth of the reality we are facing as a nation in terms we can all relate to.

  3. yes this is a very troubling development…It is never too early to start stimulating a young child’s mind and some parents simply to not have the time or resources to do it all themselves…If the child don;t do preschool they may be at a disadvantage when they start kindergarten as opposed to the others who have done prek.