Early Childhood

State Preschool Funding Now Above Pre-Recession Levels, Enrollment Climbing

By Christina A. Samuels — May 26, 2017 2 min read
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The 2015-16 school year saw a marked increase in state investment in preschool education, according to the most recent “State of Preschool” report developed by the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University.

Preschool enrollment is also on the rise. But the report also found that the quality of state preschool programs, as measured by a set of 10 benchmarks recently revised by NIEER, is uneven.

Nationally, spending on state preschool was $7.4 billion for the 2015-16 school year an increase of $564 million over the previous school year. Much of that increase came from California, which increased its preschool spending by $200 million, and Texas, which added $100 million to its preschool program.

The nationwide spending equates to nearly $5,000 per child enrolled. In comparison, three years ago. state preschool spending was at its lowest point in a decade, at about $4,000 per child. The 2015-16 school year also saw 18 states receive $210 million in federal money through the preschool development grants that were in place at the time.

Nearly 1.5 million children were enrolled in state-funded preschool, most of whom are 4-year-olds. Their enrollment grew by about 40,000 children over the previous year, while 3-year-old enrollment grew by about 2,700. Overall, about 32 percent of eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded prekindergarten, but that varies dramatically from state to state, as the map below shows. Six states—Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—plus the District of Columbia enroll more than 60 percent of their 4-year-olds in state preschool. Seven states—Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming—have no state-funded preschool program.

This report also marks the first year that NIEER rolled out revised standards that are more closely connected to up-to-date research on what makes a high-quality early-childhood program. Those old benchmarks were always meant to be seen as minimums to support quality, said Steve Barnett, NIEER’s director.

NIEER’s change comes as there has been a “crisis of confidence” in the early-childhood community, prompted by studies of Tennessee’s state-funded preschool program and Head Start. Both of those studies found that the early boost provided by the programs faded by the time those children were in 3rd grade.

Advocates are seeing that if a program is not considered to be of high quality, “You cannot expect the same kind of results that people have been promised,” Barnett said.

As a part of the benchmark reorganization, NIEER dropped a standard that required programs to serve at least one meal, and added a standard that looks at whether programs offered training and professional development for curriculum implementation.

Another change is to the benchmark for professional development. The old standard required lead teachers to get 15 hours of professional development each year. The new standard extends that requirement to assistant directors, and also requires classroom-embedded support.

Most state programs met fewer of the new, more robust benchmarks. Only two programs, Nebraska and Ohio, met more quality standards on new benchmarks compared to the old ones. And only two states, Alabama and Rhode Island, met all 10.

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