10-Year National Preschool Study Finds Decreased Support for Quality and Greater Disparities in Access

A decade-long slide in funding for pre-K across the nation coupled with increased enrollment means the quality of early education for most kids is headed in the wrong direction, says a new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University and the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO). State pre-K now serves more than twice as many 4-year-olds as Head Start and more children than Head Start serves at all ages. However, the quality of programs that are starved for funding is at more risk than a decade ago.

“The trends we observed indicate that the nation is at an important turning point for pre-K. Unless states reverse course, the future is one of slow growth, increasing inequality, and declining real support for quality that will sap programs of their educational effectiveness. Fortunately, some states have shown a willingness to move forward, but the federal government should provide financial incentives for all states to ensure every child can access a good preschool education” said NIEER Director and report coauthor Steve Barnett.

Key findings from the Trends in State Funded Preschool Programs: Survey Findings from 2001-2002 to 2011-2012 report are:

  • Enrollment increased dramatically for 4-year-olds over the decade, but funding did not keep pace. The recession led many states to limit funding, intensifying a long-term trend in the wrong direction.  State expenditure per child fell by more than $1,100, adjusting for inflation.
  • Access to quality preschool education heavily depends on where a child lives. Ten states do not fund pre-K. Among those that do fund pre-K, enrollment, standards, and funding differ in the extreme. Without federal action these interstate inequalities are likely to persist.
  • States have far less data available to inform policy regarding their preschool programs and the children they serve than they do for K-12 education. For example, many states cannot report enrollment for children by ethnic background, home language, or family income.

The authors stress that only quality pre-K substantially benefits children and society. This decade review indicates that much of the promise of pre-K is being sacrificed by “penny wise, pound foolish” behavior.  Turning this around requires a national effort to enlist every state in supporting quality pre-K for all young children, half of whom live below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

For the last decade, NIEER has tracked the policies of state-funded preschool programs through an annual survey. The Trends Report, by W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D. and Megan E. Carolan, MPP, summarizes this information going back to 2002, tracking trends in state policies and practices regarding enrollment, program standards, and funding.

A full copy of the report can be found at  https://nieer.org/publications/policy-reports/trends-state-funded-preschool-programs-survey-findings-2001-2002-2011.

CEELO and NIEER will be hosting a web-conference drawing on the information from this paper titled Equitable Access to Quality Pre-K on August 22, 3:00-4:30.   Panelists from NIEER and from the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans will be presenting. More information and registration can be found here.

CONTACT: Kirsty Clarke Brown

(732) 993-8051, kbrown@nieer.org


The National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org), a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research.

One of 22 Comprehensive Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (www.ceelo.org) will strengthen the capacity of State Education Agencies (SEAs) to lead sustained improvements in early learning opportunities and outcomes.

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