Nationwide Funding for State Pre-K Programs Lowest in a Decade, Report Finds

For decades, study after study have shown that children who attend pre-kindergarten programs are better prepared for the rest of their education, beginning in kindergarten and lasting all the way to college. They perform better on tests, repeat grades less often and need less special education than kids who did not attend pre-k regardless of socioeconomic status, according to research by The Pew Center on the States.

But funding for pre-k programs across the country is steadily declining. In fact, a new report released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Brunswick, N.J. campus of Rutgers University, finds most states aren’t even giving their pre-k programs enough cash to maintain quality standards and calling the “overall picture” of pre-k education “dim.”

The report, “The State of Preschool 2011 Yearbook,” ranks the states on their funding of pre-k programs and their availability to children using 10 benchmarks of quality pre-k standards. Only five state programs met all of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks. The rest are struggling to find balance as significant cuts in funding, coupled with continuing growth in enrollment are preventing them from providing high-quality pre-k education. Nationwide, NIEER found, spending for state pre-k programs has dropped more than $700 per child over the last 10 years. In the 2010-2011 school year alone, per child spending plummeted $145. The national average spent per child was $4,151, with some states spending as much as $8,000 per child and others as little as $2,000.

“Parents would be outraged if we had such low expectations for the first grade or kindergarten,” said Steve Barnett, director of NIEER, in a press release. “As economic conditions improve, states need to provide more adequate funding, step up quality, and make pre-k available to all children.”

During the 2010-2011 school year, more than 1.3 million children attended pre-k, most between the ages of 3 and 4, according to the report. Twenty eight percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded pre-k program.

A September 2011 Pew report titled “Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future” noted “dramatic” results for school districts that have integrated pre-k into the public education system. Nine years after adding a pre-k program, one Kentucky school district was forced to increase standards for children graduating from kindergarten because many former pre-k students were satisfying first-grade entry requirements halfway through kindergarten, the report said.

Originally thought of as a childcare solution for working parents, the Pew report says, pre-k has evolved over the last decade into a valuable education experience for children aged 3 to 4. And pre-k’s educational success may be due to a focus that includes not only traditional academic studies such as literacy and math, but also so-called soft skills.

“These [soft skills],” the report says, “include social-emotional abilities (e.g., working well with peers and in group settings and negotiating conflicts), approaches to learning (e.g., persisting through challenges and directing one’s own learning) and executive functions (e.g., focusing on tasks and controlling one’s own feelings, behaviors and thoughts).”

While soft skills represent important social skills for children, Pew says they also provide a strong foundation for early reading and math aptitude, are an important predictor of later academic achievement and are associated with adult wellbeing.

The report by NIEER grading states’ pre-k programs included some good news for advocates of early learning, as some states met nine or more NIEER benchmarks during the 2010-2011 school year, despite the national trend defunding pre-k. In total, 11 states met nine benchmarks and five met all 10, a record for the annually produced study.

Alabama is one of the states meeting all of NIEER’s quality benchmarks, outperforming the state’s K-12 public education system that routinely falls near the bottom of many national rankings of math, science and reading education. The pre-k program, known as First Class, is maintaining high quality standards despite receiving funding cuts in recent years.

The difference between pre-k and K-12 is the size of the program, says Jan Hume, the director of Alabama’s Office of School Readiness, the department administering the state-funded pre-k program. First Class is smaller and able to stretch its funding further.

“With a smaller population we can focus on quality,” Hume said.

Limited resources have slowed the program’s growth. But Hume wants to see the program become available for all 4-year-olds in Alabama.

“We’re excited about quality,” she said, “but the question becomes, how do we touch more children and maintain the same quality with the resources we have?”

The remaining states meeting all 10 benchmarks were Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina and Rhode Island.

At the bottom of the list, however, was Ohio, a state meeting only two of the benchmarks, followed closely by California and Florida, both of which met three. Texas and Vermont each met four.

Arizona became the first state with no pre-k program after recession-fueled budget shortfalls lead to the program’s defunding.

In order to regain much of the quality lost from defunding pre-k nationwide, NIEER recommends states consider the programs long-term priorities rather than year-to-year funding decisions, allowing lawmakers to “plan for it just as they do for other long-term priorities such as major infrastructure projects.”

Photo by Pam Brophy