Preschool Yearbook Finds Fewer Children Enrolled

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After the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) nearly lost funding last year, the early education community is breathing a sigh of relief at today’s publication of the organization's annual State of Preschool Yearbook. That is, until we cracked it open.

According to NIEER, 2013 marked the first year of decline in enrollment noted by the organization over the decade it has been publishing the Yearbooks. More than 9,000 fewer 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs across the U.S. this year. The decline came from just 11 states that reduced enrollment overall, compared with 20 states that actually grew their ranks last year. A massive decline in 4-year-olds’ enrollment in California (14,000 fewer children enrolled), as well as Pennsylvania and Arkansas (2,800 and 2,000 fewer children enrolled, respectively) dragged down the enrollment numbers across the country.

Overall, though, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs has barely budged since the recession wound down; in total, 28 percent of all 4-year-olds and 4 percent of all 3-year-olds were enrolled, the same figures as in 2011 and 2012. Moreover, the picture in some states is even worse. Ten states offer no state-funded pre-K; 10 others enroll less than 10 percent of 4-year-olds in their programs. (One state, Mississippi, is developing a program now, but hasn’t yet gotten it off the ground.)  Just three states (Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont) and Washington, D.C. serve more than 70 percent of their 4-year-olds; and only the District of Columbia serves more than a quarter of its 3-year-olds (80 percent). Access to pre-K, it seems, is still dependent on a child’s luck at being born into a state that offers publicly funded pre-K.

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Meanwhile, states’ total funding for pre-K increased in 2013, by $30.6 million adjusted for inflation and average state spending per child enrolled increased from last year’s notable dip below $4,000. At $4,026 per child in 2013 (just $36 more per child than was spent in 2012), though, per-child pre-K spending is still lower than it was even at the height of the recession. And in 21 of the 40 states that offer pre-K, plus Washington, D.C., per-child spending declined from last year’s levels; in 22 states, total pre-K spending dropped.

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Perhaps most importantly, though, it wasn’t all bad news on the program quality front. Only two states reduced the quality of their programs according to NIEER’s 10 benchmarks: Arizona, which stopped requiring lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, and Missouri, which reduced the number of required hours of professional development for teachers. [pullquote]If you thought the recession felt long, it’s stretching out even longer for state-funded pre-K programs.[/pullquote]Moreover, Ohio finally adopted early learning standards, making that benchmark the only one met by 100 percent of state pre-K programs. In all other categories, programs managed to hold the line in protecting program quality -- though they still have a long way to go, with only five states (Alabama, Alaska, one of Louisiana’s three programs, North Carolina, and Rhode Island) meeting all 10 benchmarks and just seven more meeting nine of the 10. To date, five states -- California, Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Vermont -- still don’t meet even half of the quality metrics.

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So if you thought the recession felt long, it’s stretching out even longer for state-funded pre-K programs, which have yet to recover much from the effects of the recession. Last year’s alarming report that state pre-K funding had experienced its largest one-year decline of the last decade reversed this year, but states have a lot of work to do to expand access and improve program quality. As NIEER points out, the enrollment decline in 2013 means states weren’t stretching fewer dollars across more students, but funding is still far from sufficient to guarantee at least all low-income children access to high-quality early education.

Author:

Clare McCann was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America.