Early Childhood Opinion

Comparing Pre-K and K-12 Spending Trends: It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid

By Sara Mead — April 11, 2012 1 min read

Per yesterday’s post on the new NIEER Pre-K Yearbook and declining state per-pupil spending on pre-k: I think it’s useful to contrast these trends in state pre-k spending with the contemporaneous trends in per pupil spending for public elementary and secondary schools over the past decade.

As the above chart shows, per-pupil spending on pre-k has trended down pretty consistently over the past decade--declining by about 12% from 2002 through 2009 (unfortunately, I could only find average per-pupil spending on K-12 through 2009, so I didn’t run the comparison past that point--If I had, the % decline in pre-k spending would be even higher). Over the same period, per-pupil expenditures on public elementary and secondary education increased by about 13%--or over $1,200 per-pupil. As a result, average spending per pre-k pupil went from 52% of average spending on K-12 student in 2002 to only 40% in 2009.

Now, to be fair, per-pupil spending doesn’t tell the whole story here. Because states were expanding pre-k enrollment during much of this period, total state spending on pre-k rose considerably between 2002 and 2009. But the size of those increases--about $2.5 billion in nominal trems--pales in comparison to the $164 billion increase in K-12 spending over the same period.

This, to my mind, highlights a failure of early childhood advocacy over the past decade: It we look at trends in pre-k spending in a vacuum, it looks like pre-k advocates made a lot of progress. If we look at them compared to trends in K-12 or higher ed funding, it looks like a disaster. And we’re now in a period where getting new local, state, or federal spending for education--early childhood, K-12, or higher--is increasingly challenging.

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.