Early Childhood

Pre-K Funding, Enrollment Landscape Seen Shifting

By Christina A. Samuels — May 20, 2014 5 min read
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The 2012-13 school year saw modest changes both in enrollment and spending on state-funded preschool, according to a yearly analysis from an early-education research and advocacy group. But next year could see dramatic changes, as several high-profile expansions of preschool get underway.

Spending in state-run programs was $4,026 in the 2012-13 school year up from $3,990 the previous year, according to the “State of Preschool Yearbook” published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Enrollment also dipped by 9,200 children, a small change but notable because it is the first time NIEER has seen an enrollment drop in more than 10 years of tracking data.

This year, however, New York and Michigan approved large state preschool investments. High-profile expansions also are underway or planned in Alabama, Iowa, Minnesota, and Mississippi, among other states.

“Individual states can move forward well in advance of other states that aren’t willing to do so,” said W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER, on a May 12 briefing call with reporters announcing the report’s release.

Still Behind

The funding increase in 2012-13, which totaled about $30 million, does not make up for a sharp decline in investments between the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 academic years. Per-child spending dropped by $428 over that time period.

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.

SOURCE: National Institute for Early Education Research

But the most recent decline in enrollment did not affect 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 leads 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 provides publicly funded programs for just 1 percent of its 4-year-olds, or 144 children, according to the 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 publication focuses on state-funded programs.)

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.

Next year’s analysis could capture changes such as the recently approved measure in New York, where lawmakers voted earlier this year to devote $1.5 billion over five years to early-childhood education statewide. The bulk of the funding is going to New York City, which has responded with a major recruitment effort for enrollment.

Other states have decided to approach funding preschool more cautiously, such as Indiana. The state is creating a pilot program that could serve up to 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families. It would start no later than fall 2015.

Those moves are enough for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to reiterate his contention that preschool expansion is a subject that transcends partisanship. State leaders “are putting aside politics and ideology and simply doing the right things for children and the nation,” Mr. Duncan said on the media call.

Enrollment Drops Noted

The enrollment decline noted in the report was driven by a relative handful of states. For example, California decreased enrollment by more than 14,000 slots for 4-year-olds in the 2012-13 school year, 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 NIEER’s data collection 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.

And, Mr. Barnett said, the federal funds are being used solely for data collection, which is released as a separate publication by NCES.

The analysis of the data, published in the organization’s yearbook, is funded by the Los Altos, Calif.-based Heising-Simons Foundation.

One benefit of the federal partnership is that it will allow what has been proprietary data held by NIEER to be publicly available, Mr. Barnett said. The organization can also report more information about states that do not have state-funded programs—10, as of 2012-13.

“We have a proprietary system for collecting that kind of information that costs millions of dollars; it would have cost the government a fortune to try and replicate that,” Mr. Barnett said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as Pre-K Funding, Enrollment Landscape Seen Shifting

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