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Data Shows First Decline in State Preschool Spending in a Decade

By Sara Mead — April 30, 2013 3 min read

Yesterday, the National Institute for Early Education Research released their annual State Preschool Yearbook, a valuable resource on state preschool programs, spending and enrollment. It’s not a pretty picture. Total state spending on preschool was down 7% in 2011-12, marking the first time in a decade that overall state spending on preschool has fallen. To understand why this is so striking, it’s important to place pre-k spending trends in longer-term context (see chart below). For most of the past decade, the Yearbook has shown states making progress on pre-k. Even after the recession hit in 2008, the report still found states holding ground on pre-k, thanks in part (but not exclusively) to an infusion of federal ARRA funds, and even showed a funding uptick last year. This is the first time since NIEER started counting that states collectively have actually taken a step backwards on pre-k. Further, pre-k funding levels in 2011-12 were at their lowest point since the recession began in 2008.

The positive overall trend is in someways still encouraging--even with the cuts this past year, states are still spending more than twice as much on pre-k as they did a decade ago, and serving vastly larger numbers of children. But the downward shift in a previously upward trend is cause for alarm--particularly in light of how far states still remain from providing access to quality preschool for all children who need it. Nationally, state preschool programs still serve only 28% of 4-year-olds and 4% of 3-year-olds (Head Start, state preschool, and other public programs combined serve only about 40% of 4-year-olds and 15% of 5-year-olds).

Even in the face of declining funding, state preschool enrollment actually rose last year by about 10,000 children, keeping the percentage of children enrolled roughly steady given population growth. How did states grow enrollment even as they cut funding? By lowering the level of state resources spent per pupil--to $3,841 in 2011-12, down from $4,284 the previous year--or a 10% funding cut for preschool in a single year, and a level of resources far lower than the cost to provide quality preschool. This continues a trend of declining per-pupil spending levels on pre-k even as states have expanded access in recent years.

Mike Petrilli, writing at the Fordham’s Gadfly blog, argued that the falling spending levels over the past decade illustrate the folly of universal preschool and need to concentrate resources on the neediest kids. Unfortunately, the actual data don’t suggest the problem here is states spreading resources too thin in order to serve higher income children. For all that “UPK” has become the public shorthand for state-funded preschool programs, the vast majority of state preschool programs are anything but universal and most do, in fact, target resources to the neediest kids. And most states are spreading resources thin while still failing to serve all eligible low-income children. Indeed, some of the largest cuts in per-pupil pre-k spending came in states, like California, with very tight income eligibility criteria targeting preschool funds exclusively to low-income children.

Ultimately, improving access to quality preschool for all children who need it is going to require a significant increased state commitment to preschool funding. More than that, however, it requires a shift in attitude by state policymakers, away from seeing preschool as a social service and childcare program and towards seeing it as an educational commitment on par with states’ K-12 commitments. The numbers in the most recent NIEER report show that we’re still a long way from that.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.