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Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as State Aid, Enrollment for Preschool Climb

State Aid, Enrollment for Preschool Climb

But Great Disparities in Programs Exist Among and Within States

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Enrollment in state-financed preschool programs continues to rise nationwide, while access to such services still varies significantly from state to state, concludes the second preschool “yearbook,” released last week.

Published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, a think tank at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., the report tracks the percentage of children being served and ranks states on whether they meet specified benchmarks of quality.

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“I think what is most worrisome is the vast disparities across and within states,” W. Steven Barnett, the director of the institute, said during a telephone press conference to announce the findings. “Even though we’re up overall, some states cut enrollment, and some states cut funding. That’s not the way we treat the education of children once they turn 5.”

For example, total state spending on preschool increased by more than $92 million from 2002 to 2003, to $2.54 billion, but spending per child dropped over that period by 2.5 percent.

Twelve states still don’t offer preschool, but that list includes Florida, which faces a voter mandate to begin providing a universal program by next summer.

And only two states, Georgia and Oklahoma, continue to provide universal access to preschool, regardless of family income, instead of targeting programs to disadvantaged children.

“The need for preschool education does not cease when family incomes exceed the income thresholds for targeted state (and federal) programs,” the authors write. “There is good reason to believe that our nation would benefit from making such programs more widely available.”

Regional Differences

The data show that the South has the strongest commitment to providing preschool. More than 23 percent of 4-year-olds in that region are enrolled in state preschool programs. Besides Florida, Mississippi is the only state in the 16-state region that does not now offer a state preschool program.

But Mr. Barnett did not view the South’s undertaking as unexpected.

“Clearly, many Southern states have been seeking to improve their economic standards,” he said, “and one of the ways they have done that is by focusing on preschool.”

In the West, by contrast, only 7.2 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-financed programs.

The researchers did not control for such variables as poverty, which might account for regional disparities.

Only one of the 50 states, Arkansas, met all 10 indicators of high quality: requiring teachers to have bachelor’s degrees, using a comprehensive curriculum, having small class sizes, and providing a meal, among them. Both North Carolina and Illinois met nine indicators.

At the other end of the spectrum, Pennsylvania met only two of the 10 measures of quality: requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and to earn at least six credit hours of in-service training over five years. Several states met three or four.

Mr. Barnett also noted that not all of the benchmarks are created equal.

For example, if a program provides a good snack instead of a full meal, that’s less important than whether the state requires teachers to have only a child- development-associate credential, not a four-year degree, he said.

In California—where a variety of attempts have been made to establish a statewide universal system in recent years—the state preschool program met four of the 10 benchmarks.

Michael Fuller, a child-development consultant in the state education department, attributed the lackluster showing to the state’s budget shortfall.

“Funding has been problematic,” he said. “But who knows what might be produced by future ballot initiatives.”

He added that the early-education institute’s report does not capture the work that the state is doing to write prekindergarten curriculum standards. And even though the state does not mandate that teachers hold a bachelor’s degree, master teachers and center directors are required to have attained that level of education.

“We’re doing a lot of things, but in this particular study, it’s all or nothing,” Mr. Fuller said.

Attitudes About 3-Year-Olds

While enrollment of 4-year-olds increased by 1.7 percent nationally since the first report was published, last year, the percentage of 3-year-olds declined slightly, by 0.2 percent.

“There’s a certain logic to starting with 4-year-olds,” Mr. Barnett said. But, he added, the status of the lagging enrollment of 3-year-olds reflects the public’s ambivalence about formal programs for younger children.

“The public, to some extent, hasn’t put two and two together in terms of the scientific research” about learning during the early years, he said. “They’ve come to the conclusion that education is very important, but it hasn’t sunk into their attitudes about preschool.”

The institute recommends that states increase funding for preschool and pay for programs through their K-12 finance formulas. The report also contends that improvements in quality are needed.

Although many preschool centers voluntarily meet the benchmarks measured by the report, Mr. Barnett said, it’s still important for states to mandate them.

The federal government, the report also recommends, could help encourage states to expand their preschool programs by matching state contributions, for example.

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Pages 20,24

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