While spending on early childhood education got a federal boost with stimulus funds, those have run out and funding has seen big drops since the recession, according to a new report from the New America Foundation.
Funding saw a high of nearly $33 billion from the 2009 stimulus bill, which injected states with an extra $11.2 billion for programs serving kids from age zero to third grade. But that figure fell to a low of $21.5 billion last year. The loss of stimulus funds, combined with low revenues for state coffers and federal spending cuts, led some states to cut back. State spending fell by more than $600 since the 2008-2009 school year, and it actually experienced its first year-over-year decline in per-child spending a decade in 2012. Special education also fared poorly: while it saw a one-time doubling of funding through the stimulus, it stayed flat and then fell last year thanks to sequestration.
The current school year should see some improvement, as 30 states increased their spending on preschool programs and just three cut back.
But as funding begins to bounce back, enrollment has steadily climbed. In 2012, 1.2 million four-year-olds attended state funded Pre-K programs and 424,000 attended Head Start. Overall, the share of four-year-olds in preschool programs inched up from 40 percent in 2009 to 42 percent. Universal preschool has gotten some attention lately, with President Obama proposing a nationwide plan and many states working toward their own. Legislation has been introduced in California, Indiana, and South Carolina. Even so, publicly funded preschool programs reach just 28 percent of four-year-olds. The U.S. ranks at number 26 among its peer countries for the share of four-year-olds enrolled in preschool programs.
There’s also a need to increase full-day Kindergarten. Just 11 states and Washington, D.C. require all school districts to provide a full day, and six states don’t require them to provide Kindergarten at all. Estimates on how many children attend full-day Kindergarten vary substantially, from 58 to 77 percent, but some of the full days may only be four hours. “In recent years,” the report notes, “some states—including Minnesota, Oklahoma, Washington, and Nevada—have begun to expand the provision of full-day kindergarten.”
And more needs to be done to ensure quality in early childhood education. Just 20 states require lead teachers in publicly funded Pre-K programs to have a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, little to no progress has been made in making their pay commensurate with other teachers. “Current policies are not focused on improving compensation of teachers in pre-K settings or bringing their pay in line with elementary school teachers,” the report states. The median pay for someone teaching children ages three to five in 2010 was just $25,700, below the poverty line for a family of four.