State funding for preschool drops as Obama calls for expansion

State funding for preschool across the country dropped last school year after a decade of growth, tapping the brakes on the quality and reach of programs as President Obama has called for a massive expansion of early childhood education, according to a national survey scheduled for release Monday.

Twenty-seven of the 40 states that fund preschool, including Maryland and Virginia, reported declines in spending per child. The District, the only city included in the report, bucked the trend with significant gains in spending and access for what is already one of the largest preschool programs in the country.

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Nationwide, “the state of preschool was a state of emergency,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, which has been tracking preschool spending and quality since 2001.

States spent $5.1 billion on preschool in the 2011-2012 school year, down about $550 million, adjusted for inflation, from the prior year. The report said the decline is most likely attributable to the recession and a drop-off in federal stimulus dollars.

Obama’s proposed budget includes $75 million in matching grant funding for states to provide high-quality preschool for all 4-year-olds during the next decade.

That could be the help states need to reinvigorate their investment in young learners, Barnett said. But budget battles during the coming year are likely to be fierce at both the state and federal levels. Spending cuts tied to sequestration are already being felt in many federally funded Head Start programs.

Last Friday morning, a group of 3-year-olds leaned in to hear a story at a Head Start program run by Northern Virginia Family Services in Arlington, which mirrors those across Virginia and throughout the country.

After the librarian read the last page, she told them, “When I touch your head, you may get up and get a book.”

One by one, they scrambled to the bookshelf and then settled down again on the floor to read.

“What book did you choose?” a teacher asked a little girl. “Do you know how to spell the title?”

“C-O-R-D-U-R-O-Y,” the girl said slowly, pointing out each letter.

The program serves children in families that fall below the federal poverty line, teaching lessons in literacy and school readiness that other children learn at home or not at all until kindergarten.

As of July 1, Karen Allen, a Head Start program director in Northern Virginia, said she will need to cut up to 6 percent of the budget because of sequestration, and she is still looking for places to save money.

“We are doing our best not to cut the availability to any student,” she said.

More than 1.3 million children attended state-funded preschool programs last school year, including 28 percent of all 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds. The share of children in all publicly funded preschool, including Head Start and special-education programs, is higher, with 41 percent of 4-year-olds and 14 percent of 3-year-olds enrolled.

The District ranked first in the nation for preschool access and spending, according to the report. Last year, 92 percent of 4-year-olds and 69 percent of 3-year-olds attended preschool in the city, where enrollment and per-pupil spending both increased.

Maryland came in 12th in the country for access, with 35 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds enrolled. Virginia was 25th, with 16 percent of 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool and no 3-year-olds enrolled.

In both states, net enrollments increased slightly last year, but state per-student funding dropped. The total spending per student, including local and other funding sources, was $5,872 in Virginia, $8,599 in Maryland and $14,938 in the District.

Mounting fiscal pressures are compromising the quality of preschool, Barnett said. The report measured state programs according to 10 benchmarks, including teacher training, academic standards, class size, staff-child ratios, health and food services, and how closely programs are monitored.

Maryland met eight of the 10 standards, the District (excluding charter school programs) met seven and Virginia met six. The report said that Maryland and the District have adequate funding to meet quality standards, but Virginia falls far short.

Potential benefits are “an order of magnitude” greater than the costs, Barnett said. High-quality programs have been proven to boost children’s academic performance in early years as well as their long-term employment prospects, the report said.

 
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