Quality Counts 2015 features a new indicator called the Early Education Index. The measure, developed by the Education Week Research Center, complements the theme of this year’s report by drawing upon the most recent available information to assess levels of participation in early-education programs and services, as well as aspects of equity and enrollment trends from 2008 to 2013. The index incorporates the center’s original analysis of federal data on participation in preschool and kindergarten (public and private), with a particular focus on low-income families, enrollment in full-day programs, and trends over time. Also included is the percentage of low-income children who attend Head Start, the federally-funded preschool program for children from disadvantaged families.
The index grades states under a “best-in-class approach.” On each indicator, the top state receives 100 points. All other states are awarded points based on their performance relative to that state. A state’s overall index grade is calculated as the average of its scores across each of the eight indicators that comprise the Early Education Index.
None of the states really aced this exam, and the nation as a whole barely passed, earning a D-plus. States also tended to perform inconsistently across the index’s eight indicators. In fact, the majority of states (29) ranked in the top 10 in the nation for some indicators but in the bottom 10 for others.
One of the reasons for this lackluster showing is that early childhood education is an elaborate patchwork of laws, institutions, and programs spanning the public and private sectors and varying dramatically across states.
With no states mandating preschool attendance, the center’s analysis finds that fewer than half of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool, and more than 40 percent of attendees are enrolled in private programs. By contrast, roughly 10 percent of elementary and secondary students attend private schools. The largest public preschool program, Head Start, targets low-income and at-risk children.
Kindergarten also operates in a policy and regulatory context distinct from the rest of elementary and secondary schooling. Only 15 states and the District of Columbia require children to enroll, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States. The Education Week Research Center finds that, while most eligible children do attend kindergarten (78 percent), a quarter of those kindergartners are enrolled in part-day programs.
Turning back to the Early Education Index, the District of Columbia ranked at the top of the nation, earning a B-plus, with a score of 89.5 out of 100. A longstanding publicly-funded program provides universal access. The District boasts the nation’s highest participation in preschool (76 percent).
At the other end of the scale, Idaho and Utah both earned grades of F. Despite their low overall showings, these states, like many others, exemplify the inconsistency of the early-childhood landscape. For example, Idaho, ranked next to last, has narrowed its smaller-than-average gap between poorer and more affluent pupils and has done so faster than all but a few states.