Early Childhood

Report: States Spending Less Per Pupil on Pre-K

By Christina A. Samuels — April 29, 2013 2 min read
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Spending on state-funded preschool dropped by more than half a billion dollars in the 2011-12 school year compared to the year before, creating a hole that some states are only now attempting to fill, according to a report out today from the State of Preschool 2012 produced by the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

NIEER said the cuts were due, in part, to lingering effects of the budget woes in the states caused by the recent recession, plus the expiration of federal economic-stimulus funds. State funding for preschool stood at $3,481 per child in the 2011-12 school year, down from $5,020 in 2001-02 in 2012 dollars. Over that time frame, enrollment increased by 650,000 children, though 4-year-old enrollment was stagnant between 2010-11 and 2011-12.

W. Steven Barnett, the NIEER director, said that some states, such as Michigan, proposed in this year’s legislative session to make increases in early-childhood spending, and others were planning programs where none had existed before, like Mississippi. (Both states’ plans were explored in a recent Education Week article.) But the NIEER data tracks actual expenditures, not just promises to spend more money, he added.

“It’s one thing to promise an increase, but it’s another thing to actually follow through,” Barnett said. Michigan’s proposal is currently under consideration in both the state House and Senate; Mississippi approved spending $3 million for a limited preschool program to serve about 1,300 children, the first time the state has spent money on preschool.

The report tracked the decrease in early-childhood spending and enrollment based on several measures. Among its conclusions:

State funding per child for pre-K declined in 27 of 40 states with programs, when adjusted for inflation. In 13 states, per-child spending fell by 10 percent or more from the previous year. Only 12 states increased funding per child in 2011-2012. Only 15 states plus the District of Columbia could be verified as providing enough per-child funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards. As only about 20 percent of the children enrolled in state-funded pre-K attend those programs, the vast majority of children served are in programs where funding per child may be inadequate to provide a quality education. More than 1.3 million children attended state-funded pre-K, 1.1 million at age 4. That reflects an enrollment increase of fewer than 10,000 children from the previous year, which was not enough to offset population growth and increase the percentage of children served. Four percent of 3-year-olds and 28 percent of 4-year-olds were served in state-funded pre-K, the same as in the previous year. Combining general and special education enrollments, 31 percent of 4-year-olds and 7 percent of 3-year-olds are served by public pre-K. When Head Start programs are included, 41 percent of 4-year-olds and 14 percent of 3-year-olds are served in these publicly funded programs. These percentages are similar to last year, indicating that enrollment in publicly-funded programs more generally has stagnated.

NIEER’s ten quality benchmarks include items such as whether teachers have bachelor’s degrees, whether they receive 15 hours or more of in-service training, and whether class sizes are 20 students or lower. Four states and one of the three programs available in Louisiana meet the benchmarks, down from five states in the previous year.

The Obama administration’s proposal to increase federal investment in preschool by partnering with states seems “tailor-made” to fix some of the deficiencies identified in the report, Barnett said. That proposal would use cigarette-tax money to provide $75 billion over the next 10 years in increased spending on 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The money would primarily come from the federal government in the first years, but eventually taper off until states are funding most of the effort on their own—something leaders should already want to do, Barnett said.

“All 50 states should support a state-funded preschool program of high quality,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.