As the saying goes, those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it. Living in the present COVID-19 environment, we’d be foolish not to revisit our history lessons to see how they might guide post-COVID policy responses. Fortune recently published a commentary by NIEER Founder and Co-Director Dr. W. Steven Barnett called “Now is the time to invest in preschool education. Here’s why.” In his commentary, Barnett calls out the devastating impact of the Great Recession on state-funded preschool and the fact that, more than a decade later, national per child funding levels have not fully recovered. The result is that program quality and access haven’t recovered either. Just four states met all ten minimum quality standards benchmarks in 2019 and, nationally, we continue to serve only one-third of our four-year-olds and merely six percent of our three-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs. In the wake of the Great Recession, we sacrificed access to high-quality preschool.
A state-by-state analysis provides more detail to round out this sobering picture (see Table 1). Of the 39 states (including DC) with public preschool programs in 2007-08, 25 spent less per child on state funded preschool in 2018-19 than they spent before the Great Recession, after adjusting for inflation. That’s almost two-thirds of state programs still struggling to come back. And come back from what? States like Nebraska and Kansas, which already had low per child spending rates in 2007-08, are now spending 40 to 50 percent less per child. And even when we see states with relatively small discrepancies, like Pennsylvania, Missouri and Connecticut, which currently spend about five percent less per child, we have to remember that this is five percent less than was spent over a decade ago. Not exactly a model worthy of emulation.
But there are other states proving that this isn’t the way it has to be. California, for example, had a relatively low total per child spending amount in 2007-08, but increased that rate by 80 percent and now ranks 7th in the nation in state spending for public preschool. After instituting a universal preschool program, Vermont has increased it’s per child spending by almost 150 percent since the Great Recession and now ranks 2nd in the nation for three- and four-year-old access to state preschool. Rhode Island didn’t even have a state-funded preschool program in 2007-08, but has since implemented a strong program consistently meeting all ten of NIEER’s quality standards benchmarks. Along with Rhode Island, five other states and Guam have all established state preschool programs since the Great Recession.
So what have we learned from this history lesson? More than a decade has not been enough time for 25 states to pull their per child spending rates for public preschool programs back up to pre-Great Recession levels and, as a nation, we continue to struggle to provide children with access to high-quality preschool. But we’ve also learned that it doesn’t have to be this way. States can choose to prioritize preschool, and provide better options for children.
The biggest question is, have we learned from our history, or is the next generation of our youngest learners doomed to repeat it?
Table 1: State Pre-K Per Child Spending, 2007-08 to 2018-19
|State||2007-08 State Per Child Spending||2018-19 State Per Child Spending||Change in Spending*|
*For some states, funding differences may also represent a change in the program(s) implemented during this time period.