Early Childhood

States Faulted on Pre-K Spending Levels

By Christina A. Samuels & Alyson Klein — May 07, 2013 4 min read
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The Obama administration’s preschool-expansion proposal asks states to take the lead in creating high-quality pre-K programs ripe for expansion to children from low-income families.

But according to a recent report from an organization that tracks early-education spending, many states have work to do if they plan to get on board with that agenda.

Spending on state-funded preschool dropped by more than half a billion dollars in the 2011-12 school year compared with the year before, creating a hole that some states are only now attempting to fill, according to the report from the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

The institute says the drop in spending is due, in part, to lingering effects of the budget woes in the states caused by the recession, plus the expiration of federal economic-stimulus aid. State funding for preschool stood at $3,481 per child in the 2011-12 school year, down from $4,824 the year before.

The organization says that per-pupil spending is the lowest it has been since it started tracking spending in 2002. In inflation-adjusted dollars, state preschool spending in the 2001-02 school year was $5,020 per child.

Over the past 10 years, state-funded preschool enrollment rose by 650,000 children, to about 1.3 million in 2011-12.

Other Factors

But the enrollment increase alone can’t explain the entire drop in per-child funding, said W. Steven Barnett, the early-childhood institute’s director. He pointed out that enrollment of 4-year-olds in 2010-11 and 2011-12 was essentially stagnant, but spending dropped in that time period alone by $443 per child.

Funding Tension

Over the past decade, enrollment of children in state-funded preschool has risen to about 1.3 million, with most of the growth seen in the 4-year-old population. At the same time, the per-pupil spending on preschool by the states has been on a downward trend. Researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research say this reflects a trend to favor expanding preschool instead of boosting program quality.


SOURCE: National Institute for Early Education Research

States appear to be favoring expanding the numbers of children enrolled in preschool over providing the money that the Rutgers institute believes is necessary to run a high-quality program, Mr. Barnett said.

The organization, in addition to tracking state spending on preschool, evaluates programs on benchmarks such as teacher training, teacher-student ratio, and provision of health services. Four states plus one of Louisiana’s three programs met all 10 of the organization’s benchmarks for state pre-K quality standards. Another 16 states met eight or more.

“Parents can find cheap baby-sitting that’s bad for their kids on their own. They don’t need government help with that,” Mr. Barnett said. “If we’re not paying enough to get high-quality programs, we’re just throwing the money away.”

Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said he felt the report misleadingly focused on a drop in preschool spending, when the dollar amount spent on early education has actually increased over a 10-year period; it hasn’t kept pace with enrollment. In his view, preschool advocates have been spreading their money too thinly to achieve the goals that they say they want, which include preparing children for school.

“If you’re saying that this is a part of a strategy to narrow achievement gaps, you need really high-quality programs, and those programs cost money,” Mr. Petrilli said.

Federal Proposal

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, Mr. 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 were paying for most of the effort on their own—something leaders should already want to do, Mr. Barnett said.

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

In a round-table discussion last week with Education Week and other news organizations, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reiterated that goal, even though the preschool proposal faces long odds on Capitol Hill.

“The average child from a disadvantaged family comes to school a year to a year and a half behind,” Mr. Duncan said. “Politicians are used to thinking short term. This is the ultimate long-term play.”

For states to participate in the initiative, their prekindergarten programs would already have to meet certain criteria.

For instance, they would have to have early-learning standards and be able to link prekindergarten data with K-12 systems. About 33 states can do that right now, Department of Education officials estimated.

The states would have to have plans in their applications for prekindergarten assessments. The programs would have to be full-day, and the teachers would have to hold bachelor’s degrees. States would have to keep class sizes reasonable, possibly one teacher to every 10 children. And they’d have to have program standards in place for kindergarten, which at least 39 do.

Administration officials couldn’t say for sure how many states already meet every condition.

In an earlier interview about the proposed program, then-Assistant Secretary Carmel Martin told reporters that the budget numbers assumed that not every state would be ready to go in the first year.

Mr. Duncan noted that the president’s fiscal 2014 budget request includes $750 million to help states get programs up to snuff. The initiative would also include $15 billion over 10 years to expand home-visiting-service programs.

“One of the objectives of this is that we want this to be a 50-state program, and we want as many states as possible to be eligible to come in the door,” Chrisanne Gayl, a senior policy consultant in the Education Department’s office of planning, evaluation, and policy development who works on early learning, said at the round-table.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2013 edition of Education Week as States Faulted on Preschool Spending Levels


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