For the first time since the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) began reporting on the country’s Pre-K programs in 2002, the number of children enrolled in them decreased in the 2012-2013 school year, according to its latest report. Last school year, 9,160 fewer four-year-olds and 42 fewer three-year-olds were in Pre-K programs.
The numbers varied significantly by state, however, as 20 increased enrollment while 11 reduced it. California had the biggest drop, decreasing enrollment by almost 15,000 spots, and four other states reduced their figures by more than 1,000 children. “While more states increased enrollment than decreased it,” the report notes, “the size of the decrease in large states such as California and Pennsylvania pulled the national total down.”
In all, slightly more than 1.3 million students attended state-funded Pre-K last year. Just 4 percent of the country’s three-year-olds and 28 percent of four-year-olds were enrolled in programs, numbers that didn’t change compared to the 2010-2011 school year. Those numbers rank us at 24th and 26th, respectively, when compared to other developed countries.
The report also finds that after nearly half a billion dollars in spending was cut in the previous school year, “many state pre-K program budgets leveled off and even regained some ground.” Overall state funding increased by $30.6 million, about a 1 percent increase, although far from enough to fill the hole. Spending also varied significantly by state, with an increase of at least 1 percent in 18 and more than 10 percent in seven of those, but 20 states decreased it by at least 1 percent. In five, in fact, spending fell by 10 percent or more.
The combination of an overall decrease in enrollment and increase in funding meant per child spending increased by $36, bringing it to a total of $4,026. “However, that regains less than 10 percent of the prior year’s cut of $442 per child,” the report says. But it also notes that it means that the trend of spreading funding too thinly over too many students has paused, which could potentially mean an increase in quality.
Beyond raw numbers in enrollment and spending, quality also matters significantly for early childhood education programs. High-quality programs such as Georgia’s and Oklahoma’s have been found to bring significant academic improvements for the children who participate, and Chicago’s program yields about $11 for every dollar spent on it. Other studies have found that high-quality, universal preschool can generate about $7 in savings for every dollar that goes in, as well as boost human capital, children’s economic mobility, and economic output.
But state programs aren’t necessarily meeting the quality standards needed to produce those results. NIEER compares them to 10 benchmarks, and only five states met all of them. Seven states met nine and eight met eight. On the other hand, five states met less than half of them, Florida met three, and Texas met only two. That means that 41 percent of children are enrolled in state programs that meet less than five of the benchmarks.
Given this patchwork of enrollment, spending, and quality, President Obama has proposed a nationwide universal preschool program with a $75 billion investment over the next decade. But the budget Congress passed last year dedicated just $250 million to expanding state preschool programs and $500 to Head Start. Six states — California, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New York, and South Carolina — are working on universal programs, but clearly there is a long way to go.