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Why should the federal government support high-quality early education?


Every year the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, releases a report on state-funded prekindergarten programs in the United States. It is the only national report with detailed information on preschool enrollment, funding, teacher qualifications and other policies related to quality, such as the presence of a qualified teacher and assistant, small class size and low teacher-to-student ratio.

The newest edition, the 2016 yearbook, was recently released, with profiles on preschool programs in 43 states plus Guam and the District of Columbia and some information on early-education efforts in states and the U.S. territories that do not provide state-funded preschool. There was both good news and bad from the 2015-2016 school year, as the report noted:

Nationwide, state-funded preschool program enrollment reached an all-time high, serving nearly 1.5 million children, 32 percent of 4-year-olds and 5 percent of 3-year-olds. State funding for preschool rose 8 percent to about $7.4 billion, a $564 million increase. State funding per child increased to $4,976, exceeding pre-recession levels for the first time. Six state funded preschool programs met all 10 current quality standards benchmarks. Nine states had programs that met fewer than half; and seven states do not fund preschool at all.

Below is a post on the data and on the federal government’s role in prekindergarten, written by W. Steven Barnett, a Board of Governors professor and director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. His research includes studies of the economics of early care and education, including costs and benefits; the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development; and the distribution of educational opportunities. Barnett earned his PhD in economics at the University of Michigan and has written or co-written more than 180 publications.

By W. Steven Barnett

In his first budget proposal, President Trump calls for the Department of Education to “refocus its mission on supporting States and school districts in their efforts to provide high-quality education to all our students.”  Our new national survey of state preschool education programs indicates a need for just such an approach — though one requiring more federal spending on early education, not less.

Since 2002, the National Institute for Early Education Research has surveyed states regarding policies and their supports for the education of our youngest children.  Over that time, the number of children enrolled has more than doubled and quality standards have risen.  Some states are now committed to offering high-quality preschool to every child.  In addition, some cities have moved even further ahead, including New York City, where the mayor has promised to expand pre-K for all to children at age 3, beginning with the most disadvantaged families.

But progress has not been steady.  When the Great Recession hit in 2008, state programs cut spending, enrollment growth stalled, and quality standards fell. In 2015-16, states finally seem to have recovered.  Spending per child rose above inflation-adjusted pre-recession levels for the first time, enrollment increased, and quality standards were raised.

Given the progress by states, one might think the federal government should just step away.  That would be a mistake. While some states have moved toward high quality pre-K for all, others have done little or nothing. An unintended consequence of progress in leading states is increased inequality, leaving young children in other states further behind. Those left behind are primarily from low- and middle-income families — whose children could benefit the most from high-quality early learning opportunities. The highest income families everywhere have easier access to good early education; yet those of modest means struggle to help their children build a  strong foundation, depending more on local and state government early education efforts.

However, our 2016 State of Preschool Yearbook shows opportunity varies even among states investing in public preschool. Fifteen states offer pre-K to 5 percent or less of 4-year-olds in the state. And among those providing public preschool, little is known about classroom quality.  The last nationwide study of pre-K quality found that most classrooms, private and public, were not good.

Yet, high quality is needed in order to provide young children the strong start in school and life that can make a lasting difference. Only high-quality programs have been found to pay an adequate return on taxpayer investment in terms of later cost savings and increased productivity.  When populous states such as Florida spend less than $2,400 per child and require teachers to have little more than a high school diploma, and others such as Texas and California place no limits on class size, we know that many children are attending low-quality programs.

Providing every child with a high-quality preschool education requires more than adequate funding and minimum standards for teachers and classrooms. So NIEER has introduced major changes to how we rate states on quality standards. Our new benchmarks focus on policies that more directly affect the quality of children’s experiences in the classroom. The key changes fall on teachers and teaching, with requirements for direct observation, in-classroom coaching and improvement plans based on evaluations.

In the 2016 State of Preschool Yearbook, a number of states, including Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and West Virginia met all current benchmarks — and they should be proud of their accomplishments. But research shows what matters most is classroom experience so our new benchmarks raise the bar. As a result, some states that previously scored well will find they have more work to do. Just two, Alabama and Rhode Island, appear to already meet the new standards.

Overall, the 2016 State of Preschool Yearbook paints a picture of modest improvement in enrollment, spending, and quality standards. But this evaluation also reveals how much more states must do to provide high quality preschool. This work is not limited to the states with no program or very small programs.  Even some states touting universal provision have yet to commit to providing high quality. Without such a commitment such states may be spending a good deal of public money to little avail.  And that is where the federal government has two important roles to play.

First, the federal government should provide financial incentives for states to expand enrollment and raise quality. The federal Preschool Development Grant program was designed to accomplish this goal, but whether it will continue to support access to high quality is uncertain. In 2015-2016, 18 states used those federal grants to enroll more children and enhance their programs. Neither Congress nor the president has proposed to continue that funding. Rather than cutting, doubling funding for some form of competitive grants to states would allow the federal government to incentivize high quality pre-K in the majority of states, while still the size of dust mote in the federal budget.

Second, the federal government should conduct a national pre-K quality audit of public and private preschool programs. Parents and taxpayers deserve to know if their state’s pre-K programs have the resources and policies necessary to provide a good early education. NIEER’s new benchmarks are providing the GPS to guide policymakers toward sound investments in our children’s futures. However, no one can be sure they are following that GPS without an impartial assessment of children’s experiences in the preschool classroom.

We all want the best for our kids. NIEER’s annual report provides a guide for states and valuable information for parents and policymakers. But only on-the-ground evaluation in the classroom can reveal whether we, as a nation, are truly providing children with a high quality start to education.