Early Childhood

Pre-K Enrollment Dipped, Funding Rose in 2012-13, Report Says

By Christina A. Samuels — May 13, 2014 3 min read
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Spending in state-funded preschools rose a modest $36 per child in the 2012-2013 school year, a new federally funded report says. But state preschool enrollment also dropped by about 9,200 children, the first time a decline has been catalogued since 2001, when the National Institute for Early Education Research first began collecting such statistics.

The State of Preschool Yearbook 2013,” released Tuesday, noted that the decline wasn’t enough to impact the overall percentage of young children served by the 40 states and the District of Columbia that offer state-funded early education: Approximately 28 percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds are served in such programs. As in previous years, the District of Columbia led the other jurisdictions by providing preschool to 94 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds, and 80 percent of its 3-year-olds. In contrast, Rhode Island provided publicly funded programs for just 1 percent of its 4-year-olds, or 144 children, according to the NIEER yearbook.

(Nationwide, about 1.1 million additional 3- and 4-year-olds are served by Head Start, a federal program, and through special education early-intervention programs, but the NIEER yearbook focuses on state-funded programs.)

The small increase in per-child funding—to $4,026 in the 2012-13 school, up from $3,990 the previous year—is welcome, though it does not make up for a sharp decline between 2011 and 2012, said W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER, which is based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., speaking on a briefing call with reporters. Between those two years, per-child spending dropped by $428.

Educating the Youngest

The 41 states (including the District of Columbia) that offer state-funded preschool programs enroll about 1.1 million 4-year-olds and 200,000 3-year-olds. Per-pupil state funding for preschool increased in 2012-13 from the year before, though it has not reached the levels from previous years.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: National Institute for Early Education Research

Even the decrease in children served offers a small silver lining, Mr. Barnett said: In prior years, states had been prone to maintaining the number of preschool slots available even while cutting back on funding, which NIEER sees as a problem affecting preschool quality, he said.

In 2012-13, “they didn’t try to hold on to enrollment and just cut quality,” he said.

And the yearbook does not capture some of the recent changes underway in state-funded preschool. For example, New York lawmakers voted earlier this year to devote $1.5 billion over five years to early-childhood education statewide, with the bulk of the funding going to New York City.

Some Enrollment Drops Noted

In the 2012-13 school year, however, California decreased enrollment by more than 14,400 slots for 4-year-olds, bringing the total to about 79,500, the report found. Other states that saw decreases in 4-year-olds included Pennsylvania, which lost about 2,800, bringing that enrollment down to 17,900, and South Carolina, which lost about 1,700 slots, dropping to about 24,900. While more states overall increased enrollment, the changes in those large states affected national trends.

The states also appeared to hold steady on meeting the 10 quality benchmarks laid out by NIEER, such as teacher degrees, staff-child ratios, and class sizes, according to the yearbook. Those standards, while research-based, are not guarantees of quality, the yearbook notes.

Ohio met a new benchmark for adopting comprehensive early-learning standards. All states have now met that NIEER standard.

Contract Criticism

This year also marks the first time that the publication has been funded by the federal government, through the National Center for Education Statistics. In previous years, most of the funding for the report came from the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, which wrapped up a decade of preschool advocacy work in 2011.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—and an opponent of universal public preschool—wrote in a May 9 blog post that federal dollars were being used in a sole-source contract to support a policy agenda and that NIEER is not a neutral player in preschool policy.

The statistical agency has “outsourced the number-gathering to a prominent interest group in the field, it has allowed that interest group to add its own spin, then issued the results in the guise of a government statistical publication. Along the way, it’s also subsidized that group’s ongoing advocacy work,” Mr. Finn wrote.

The U.S. Department of Education’s intent to offer the contract to NIEER was publicized, and no concerns were raised about potential bias, according to the agency.

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week

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