The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pre-kindergarten programs struggle to return to pre-recession levels

States dealing with steep budget cuts over the last decade slashed funding for pre-kindergarten programs in recent years, and reversing fiscal fortunes are only now beginning to restore some of the missing money.

A new study [pdf] conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research found funding for pre-kindergarten programs increased by $30 million in the 2012-2013 school year, a modest increase over the 2011-2012 year. That’s a drop in the bucket after the half-billion in cuts states made to early education programs during the recession. In the 2012-2013 school year, 40 states and the District of Columbia spent a total of $5.4 billion on early childhood education.

“We have a long way to go to dig ourselves out of the hole that we got into during the recession,” said Steven Barnett, director of the Rutgers-based institute. “Some of those states clearly are not out of the woods when it comes to their budgetary problems.”

Per-student spending has plummeted in the last decade, due to both budget cuts and to the larger number of 4-year-olds who enroll in pre-kindergarten programs. In 2002, states spent an average of just over $5,000 per student. In 2013, states spent 20 percent less — $4,026 per pupil.

Nationally, about 28 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool programs. Another 10 percent sign up for Head Start. A total of 1.65 million children are enrolled across 53 programs in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

The number of students enrolled in preschool programs was down about 9,000 from the previous year — a statistically small decline, but the first decline the NIEER’s annual survey has ever recorded.

Enrollment dropped in six states between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years and grew in 14 states. Spending per child dropped in 21 states, most dramatically in Arizona and Alaska; those two states each cut more than $900 per child out of early childhood education budgets.

Rhode Island and Connecticut registered the largest year-over-year increases in early childhood spending in the 2012-2013 school year. Connecticut restored $16 million in cuts, adding $1,290 per pupil. Rhode Island tripled spending on their relatively small preschool program, increasing total per-student spending by $5,900.

Young children in some states are far more likely to attend preschool than those in other states. Four-year-olds in D.C. have the best access to early childhood education, and the District spends more per child, $14,690, than any state.  More than 90 percent of 4-year-olds in the District and 70 percent in Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont attend early school programs. More than half of children in Georgia, Iowa, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin get to go to school early, too.

Texas has the largest population of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, at more than 208,000. Just over 54,000 California 3-year-olds are in school, accounting for almost 11 percent of residents that age.

But some of those states with the largest programs lag behind smaller states with higher standards. Florida requires nothing more than a high school diploma to teach 3- and 4-year-olds. Texas and California have no limits on class sizes.

Ten states, mostly in the Mountain West, do not offer any preschooling programs. Publicly-funded programs in another ten states — Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Minnesota, Missouri, Alabama, Ohio, Rhode Island and Alaska — serve less than 10 percent of 4-year-olds.

Across the country, 85 percent of early childhood classes have fewer than 20 students, a rate that has dramatically improved in the last decade. The same percentage of teachers have been specially trained in early childhood education, up about 15 points from a decade ago. And almost half of all programs provide at least one meal to their students — important in a setting in which many students come from low-income homes.

Other states are moving toward better, more inclusive programs. A budget agreement between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) will provide an additional $340 million for pre-K funding per year, enough to provide early education for every child in the city. California Democrats are pushing for a similar program, though Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is hesitant about committing the necessary funding.

In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) is set to sign a bill passed by the legislature that will expand pre-kindergarten to an additional 1,800 3- and 4-year-olds, at a total cost of about $26 million per year.