NIEER Marks Decade of Study by Releasing State of Preschool 2011 Yearbook

Today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined me for the release of The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook at Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C. The new Yearbook not only provides insights on the state of state-funded pre-K for 2010-2011 but also for the entire past decade. Where is the nation headed in preschool education?  How do states compare on access, quality standards, and funding for pre-K?  How much progress have they made over the decade?

Our key finding is that while preschool expansion over the past decade garnered great attention, something else happened that got less notice. Funding slipped as enrollment increased –undercutting efforts to ensure program quality.  Adjusted for inflation, state funding for pre-K programs plummeted by more than $700 per child over the past decade.  The nation took a giant step backward in preschool education even as it appeared to be moving forward.  How did this happen? As many states expanded enrollment, funding did not keep pace. In the past year alone two-thirds of the states cut funding per child.

A decline of this magnitude should serve as a wake-up call for parents and policy leaders about how weak our commitment has become to preparing today’s preschoolers to succeed in school and later find good jobs in a competitive global economy. What makes this particularly striking is that over the past decade the evidence that high-quality preschool education is a good public investment has grown substantially. We now understand that the important difference is between great programs and middling programs; the gain from upgrading from low to moderate quality means far less to a child’s future success.

As always the State Preschool Yearbook provides many details about access, quality, and funding.  Here are some of the most important.

  • Over 1.3 million children now attend state-funded pre-K, and enrollment at age 4 doubled over the past decade. State pre-K serves 28 percent of 4-year-olds. Combined with Head Start and other public programs, enrollment is up to 45 percent as a national average.
  • Far less progress has been made in pre-K enrollment at age 3.  It is barely higher than it was a decade ago — 4 percent in state pre-K, and no more than 20 percent across all public programs.
  • Behind the national averages are huge disparities in pre-K enrollment from one state to another. If you are lucky enough to be born into one of the top states you most likely go to pre-K at age 4. Yet, 11 other states fund no state pre-K at all.  And, the majority of states still offer no funding for pre-K at age 3.
  • The recession clearly has slowed progress toward increasing enrollment. A number of states that committed to serving all children have made little progress in the last several years and others have actually cut enrollment. Four Midwestern states—Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio—serve fewer 4-year-olds than they did a decade ago.
  • We assess state policies against 10 benchmarks for adequate program quality standards.  In 2010-2011 five states met all 10 and 15 more states met 8 or 9.   That’s the good news. However, while two states improved on quality standards, four states fell back for a net loss.
  • The decline in quality standards is no surprise. Last year, real funding per child dropped $145. Total funding for pre-K fell by $60 million, adjusting for inflation.

These are troubling signs.  Research tells us the only pre-K programs that really help children prepare for school are high quality.  So, it’s wonderful that more children have access to pre-K classes. But most states don’t serve nearly all those who could benefit. And, many states that make pre-K available to large numbers of children fail to ensure that these are high-quality programs. It’s time for us to step up as a nation.  The research is quite clear: failure to prepare children for school success is far more costly than providing high-quality pre-K.  Ultimately, high-quality pre-K means a better-educated, more competitive workforce, healthier communities, and less money spent on school failure, welfare, and prisons.

All we’re asking is this: as states begin to recover economically, they should expand high-quality pre-K and invest more in these effective programs. By the end of the next decade voluntary high-quality public pre-K should be a choice for every American 4-year-old and for all 3-year-olds in poverty.

I usually stick just to the numbers, but it helps to understand the situations of the real people behind these numbers. I get letters and emails from parents desperate to find a quality preschool program for their children. I even got an email from a big sister who didn’t want her younger brother to have the same troubles she did starting school unprepared. Usually, they are families who earn enough to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, but don’t qualify for Head Start or many state-funded pre-K programs because they are not below the poverty line. Yet, they can’t afford quality pre-K on their own—there just isn’t enough left over in their paychecks after the rent has been paid.  They know their children would benefit from attending a good pre-K, but they can’t get into one.

Some states are already moving forward to change this situation — Georgia, Iowa, Vermont, and West Virginia have made remarkable progress despite the recession. Alabama and Rhode Island are poised to move ahead with increased access to top-quality programs. They demonstrate that progress can be made even in difficult times. Georgia also demonstrates how precarious progress can be. After finally making its way to the top for quality standards, it increased class size and cut the length of the school year due to limited lottery funds in the current year.  Similarly,North Carolinahas become a pre-K battleground as budget cutters slash enrollment and cut funding in a state that was once a national leader in early education.  This backsliding and the low standards and funding that characterize some massive state pre-K programs (Florida, for example) are the reasons we publish the Yearbook so that parents and everyone else can see exactly what their public officials are doing, or not doing, to invest in their children.

This is the second year in a row that Secretary Duncan has joined me for the release and his remarks were characteristically supportive of preschool education. He emphasized the importance of expanding access to high-quality early learning programs as an “investment that benefits us all.” Media interest in the report has been high and we’ll be carrying some of the coverage on our new web site.  Many thanks to the NIEER web site development team and the Yearbook team, both of whom worked many, many hours to get both the Yearbook and the web site ready in time for this release that marks a decade of commitment to high-quality preschool education!

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER