Latest Yearbook Findings: A Wake-Up Call?

When NIEER’s research team analyzed the 2009–2010 data for this year’s State Preschool Yearbook, it was not without some trepidation. News coming from the states has been anything but encouraging and we knew the previous year’s data had not captured the full impact of the recession. In many respects, the 2009-2010 data does present a fuller appreciation of the economic stresses affecting the states. For the first time since we began tracking state pre-K, total spending for the country fell in real (inflation adjusted) dollars. So did per-child spending, which now sits $700 below what states, on average, spent in the 2001–2002 school year.

Beyond the national averages, however, there’s a very mixed picture — some of it good, some bad and some downright ugly. First, the good: Enrollment increased nationally with nearly 1.3 million children attending state-funded preschool education. While the enrollment increase was not large, it does stand as testimony to the value many state leaders grappling with tough economies place on preschool education. Alaska and Rhode Island started programs for the first time – the first new states to provide pre-K in many years.

But there was plenty of bad news. After adjusting for inflation, state funding per child declined in 19 of 40 states with programs. Many of these were relatively large states. Nine state (Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Carolina) cut per-child spending by more than 10 percent. While four states (Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia) improved on NIEER’s Quality Standards Checklist, two states (Ohio and Nebraska) lost ground. And, despite increased enrollment at age 4, enrollment of 3-year-olds decreased across the country with nine states (Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington) cutting enrollment at age 3 by 10 percent or more.

In talking with members of the early education community as we prepared to release the report, it sounded like more bad news is in the offing in states like North Carolina, New York, and Illinois. These are states that have made good progress in state pre-K in recent years – progress which is now being threatened by the proposed cuts and changes in governance. Barbara Bowman, a NIEER scientific advisory board member who runs Chicago’s pre-K program, describes the funding situation in Illinois as “dire” and points out that if the federal stimulus money she used this year to support public pre-K in Chicago isn’t replaced she will have to cut the number of kids they serve next year.

This state of affairs is not lost on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who joined me in Washington to present the yearbook findings. Duncan remarked that educational inequality is the civil rights issue of our time and increased access to quality pre-K and other early learning opportunities is the way to begin addressing disparities.

— Steve Barnett
Co-director, NIEER


  1. Steve:

    Once again NIEER’s Yearbook provides essential data for understanding what is going on with state pre-K investments. You and the NIEER staff are to be thanked for your hard work on this project.

    In a post at my blog, I tried to compare these pre-K funding trends with other state spending trends. It looks as if during the 2008-2009 to 2009-2010 period, state pre-K did relatively well in only taking a cut of one-half of 1%. For example, state and local gross investment spending declined in real terms over this time period by over 3%.

    As you point out, the real battle over state pre-K may be occurring now, in the fight over the 2011-12 budget. The issue is whether state policymakers can be persuaded that state investments in pre-K are essential to state educational reform and state economic development.

  2. Tim,

    If every child had access to quality pre-K like they do to first grade, then a small step backwards would not be so notable. However, when most Americans lack access to even one year of a quality early learning experience, it is terrible news that we are moving in the wrong direction as a country. I agree that this year will be another tough one with battles already being fought in many states.

    – Steve

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