Report: Preschool enrollments decline

Enrollment in state-funded preschool programs nationally declined for the first time in more than a decade, reflecting lingering effects of the economic downturn, according to a national survey released Tuesday.

Across the country, 4,000 fewer children attended state pre-kindergarten programs in 2012-2013 than the year before. Most of the reductions were concentrated in large states, including California, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

“Our nation has emerged from the recession, but preschool age children are being left to suffer the effects,” said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University, which publishes the annual report.

The downturn comes as President Obama has proposed a dramatic expansion of early childhood education, starting at birth.

Barnett called the slide in pre-school enrollment “surprising,” because the number of children enrolled in preschool has grown steadily for a dozen years, even as the economy has struggled. Between 2002, when the annual report was first published, and 2013, the portion of four-year olds enrolled in state-funded programs grew from 14 to 28 percent.

Much of that growth has come at the expense of quality, though, Barnett said. Average state spending for preschool declined from $5,043 per child to $4,026 in the same time. The report found that 41 percent of students enrolled in state programs in 2013 attended programs that met fewer than half of the institute’s 10 benchmarks for quality, which include measures such as class size and teacher training.

The latest report shows a slight uptick in average per student spending, which Barnett said signalled a hopeful sign that states are taking quality standards more seriously.

Maryland increased its per-student funding by $721 per student in 2012-2013, moving it from 23rd to 19th nationally in spending. At the same time, the state increased its enrollment of four-year old students.

Virginia ranked 26th among 41 states for enrollment, with 17 percent of four-year olds enrolled in state preschool. The state added funding this year, but per-student spending remains $900 less than it was in 2002.

The District of Columbia ranks first in the country in access to and funding for pre-kindergarten, with a universally available programs that enrolled 80 percent of 3-year olds and 94 percent of four-year olds.

The report does not reflect new investments in the past year, particularly in the wake of Obama’s push for early education. While Congress appears unlikely to support his proposal to provide matching federal grants to states, many cities and states are moving forward on their own.

The governor of Michigan is asking the legislature for a big boost in preschool funding, and newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed an expansion of funding for a universal preschool program in New York City, the nation’s largest public school district.

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Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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