The potential benefits of preschool has led nine states and the District to fund free preschool for all 4-year-olds, growing from just three states a decade ago. The District also offers free preschool for 3-year-olds.
The percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs doubled from 2000 to 2010, while the percentage of 3-year-olds increased slightly. The recession slowed or halted growth of programs in many states.
Nearly half of all 4-year-olds and 20 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded or federally funded preschool programs in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Those state-funded programs cost taxpayers about $5.5 billion, an average of about $5,000 per child.
Including private preschool enrollment, up to 75 percent of all 4-year-olds and 50 percent of 3-year-olds nationwide were in classrooms during the 2010-2011 school year, the institute estimates.
Still, 10 states do not fund preschool of any kind. Several, including Indiana, do not compel children to attend kindergarten, so some children have their first school experience in first grade at ages 6 or 7.
Critics of an expanded government role in preschool say the country has plenty of experience with federal preschool education — the Head Start program — and the results are lackluster.
“Overall, there is very little evidence of lasting benefits from Head Start,” said Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank. “We’ve had Head Start for 50 years, and we still have an achievement gap. On the whole, the program doesn’t seem to have accomplished what it set out to accomplish.”
Head Start, created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, is designed for 3- to 5-year-old children from low-income families. Head Start services vary by location, but they include medical care, meals, social services and education. The federal government runs another program, Early Head Start, that provides similar services for pregnant women and children up to age 3.
Last year, federal officials released a study of Head Start that found for most children in the program, academic benefits faded by third grade. There was one exception: Children from at-risk families who enrolled at age 3 showed sustained academic gains through third grade.
The Obama administration has begun cracking down on ineffective Head Start providers, notifying 254 of the 1,600 providers that they were “deficient” in terms of quality and would have to compete for funding, instead of getting automatic renewals.