Early Childhood

Study Points to Drop in Per-Pupil Spending for Pre-K

Decrease comes as enrollment doubles
By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 10, 2012 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read
Four-year-old Adrianna Crews, center, clutches a doll during playtime at the Early Learning and Literacy Center at Dunbar Elementary School in Atlanta. A new study finds per-pupil aid is shrinking for state-funded preschool programs.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story erroneously identified a funding source for the National Institute for Early Education Research. The NIEER gets most of its funding from private foundations and does not currently receive any grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

Includes updates and/or revisions.

Enrollment in state-funded preschool programs has more than doubled over the past decade—ticking upward even through the recession years—but an accompanying slide in per-child spending in many states is threatening the quality of early-childhood programs designed to serve poor children, according to a new national report.

In 2010-11, 26 of the 39 states with public prekindergarten programs, which serve mostly low-income 4-year-olds, cut funding for an overall decline of $60 million from the previous year. It’s the second straight year that overall investment in state preschool programs has fallen, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, which last week released its 10th annual report on the state of preschool. The drop in spending in 2010-11, coupled with a modest boost in enrollment, caused per-child spending in state prekindergarten programs to decrease by $145 from the previous year.

Further cuts have stung prekindergarten programs in the current school year, and a slate of proposed reductions are on tap again for 2012-13, according to the report.

Not Keeping Up

And in the decade since the NIEER began collecting data on state-funded prekindergarten programs, per-child spending—when adjusted for inflation—fell by more than $700 per child, a 15 percent drop from 10 years ago, said W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER, based at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. This decline in per pupil spending came even as the total amount of state dollars spent on preschool education seemed to be on the upswing, rising from $2.4 billion in 2001-2002 to $5.5 billion in 2010-11.

“Expanding enrollment is important, but funding hasn’t kept pace,” said Mr. Barnett. “That erodes the states’ ability to support quality.”

Preschoolers play at the Early Learning and Literacy Center at Dunbar Elementary School in Atlanta. While enrollment has boomed over the past decade for programs like this one, which serves children from disadvantaged families, a new report finds that, on a per-pupil basis, funds for public preschool programs have actually been declining.

Several states, including California and New York, have eliminated regular site visits to monitor quality, the second year in a row that has happened, according to the report. Arizona took the most extreme measure and eliminated its state preschool program entirely in 2010-11, joining 10 other states that offer no state-funded preschool services.

Though modest progress has been made on boosting the professionalism of early-childhood staff, most children enrolled in state pre-K in 2010-11 attended programs where teachers were not required to have bachelor’s degrees and teachers’ assistants only needed high school diplomas.

“States need to increase enrollments, raise standards, and adequately fund programs,” Mr. Barnett added. “But if they have to choose, then I think they have to choose standards over enrollment.”

The sobering findings in the NIEER’s latest report come as early-childhood education has become a focal point, especially at the federal level where several efforts are taking shape to improve the quality of early-education services for the nation’s poorest children.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education selected nine states to share $500 million in Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants to set standards, improve teacher quality, assess school readiness, and expand access to their early-education programs. The education department announced on April 9 that five states that narrowly missed winning a grant in the first round will get another shot later this year to vie for a portion of $133 million set aside for a second round of the competition.

And for the first time, new rules meant to improve the quality of Head Start are forcing some long-time providers of the federal preschool program for poor children to compete against other potential providers for funding, rather than qualifying automatically. (“Providers Fear New Head Start Rules Could Mean a Shake Out for the Field,” Feb. 22, 2012.)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned that states that continue to carve spending from early-education programs as a budget-saving measure will only lose ground on improving educational outcomes for poor children across the K-12 spectrum.

“Cutting investments in these programs is ... not smart,” he said in a conference call last week with reporters. “We’ve got to get preschool education right as a country if we are going to make significant reforms.”

Only five of the 39 states with public preschool programs met all 10 of the NIEER’s quality benchmarks, which include, among other things, the adoption of comprehensive early-learning standards, class sizes that don’t exceed 20 children, and regular, on-site visits to monitor quality. While two states improved to meet all 10 benchmarks, four states slipped, for an “overall net loss in quality,” Mr. Barnett said.

State-Specific Impact

Even in states that received some of the highest marks in the report, both for access and quality, cutbacks that have taken effect this school year could undermine their progress, Mr. Barnett said.

Georgia might be one of those states.

The Peach State met all 10 of the NIEER’s benchmarks for quality in 2010-11, including requiring prekindergarten teachers to have the same qualifications—a bachelor’s degree—and be paid the same as kindergarten teachers.

The state has invested heavily in its state prekindergarten program—$1.5 billion over the past five years—and serves more than 90,000 4-year-olds, which is roughly 60 percent of those who are eligible, said Bobby Cagle, the commissioner of the state agency that oversees Georgia’s prekindergarten program.

But because of shrinking revenues from the Georgia Lottery, which funds the state’s prekindergarten program and hundreds of millions of dollars every year in college scholarships, Georgia officials this year eliminated 20 days from the prekindergarten calendar and bumped class sizes up to 22 students from 20, said Mr. Cagle.

Both moves have been difficult. There was higher than usual turnover among prekindergarten teachers because of the loss in salary brought on by the shorter academic year, he said.

In Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2013, 10 days would be restored to the pre-K academic year for 2012-13.

“Teachers consistently tell me that adding days back is the most important thing because these students need to be in the classroom for longer periods of time,” Mr. Cagle said. “As we are financially able, we will add days back.”

In California, where multiple years of multi-billion-dollar budget deficits have pummeled public education programs across the spectrum, early childhood continues to be a target of budget cutters.

Faced with a $9.2 billion shortfall, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has proposed a budget for fiscal 2013 that would carve more than $500 million from the state’s early-care and preschool programs by reducing income eligibility and lowering reimbursement rates to providers.

“If that goes through, there’s no question that we will lose providers or that, at the very least, some will have to scale back,” said Celia Ayala, the executive officer of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which serves roughly 11,000 children in that region.

According to Preschool California, an early-childhood policy and advocacy group, the state’s early-childhood programs have already been cut by nearly $1 billion over the last three years, forcing some 80,000 children out of programs. Gov. Brown’s proposal, according to the group, would lead to 62,000 more children losing services.

Other large states that have made substantial cuts to preschool services include Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania, Mr. Barnett said. Per-child spending in Illinois and New York, however, rose a little.

“Some states are making better decisions than others,” Mr. Barnett said. “Leadership in the states on this issue, particularly from governors, really matters.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Study Points to Drop in Per-Pupil Funding for Pre-K Programs


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