While President Obama is pushing for dramatically increased access to Prekindergarten for all students from poverty backgrounds, a new report suggests that many states seem to be going in the opposite direction. In April, Obama announced a plan to finance pre-K for all 4-year-olds from low-income families that would provide $75 billion in increased federal funding over ten years. A few weeks later, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) published its annual State of Preschool 2012. The report shows that state funding for pre-K saw the largest drop in the 2011-2012 year, with 27 of the 40 states who offer pre-K reporting declines.
The authors describe the year as “the worst in a decade for progress in access to high-quality pre-K for America’s children.” They cite the recession as a cause for the decline in funding, but also point to long-term trends away from quality early education. Overall, state funding for pre-K dropped by more than $548 million, a decrease of more than $400 per child. For the first time in a decade, there was no increase in the percentage of children served in state pre-K programs nationwide. Some states have been making progress towards meeting the needs of their children – Florida and Oklahoma both serve more than 70% of 4-year-olds – but these states are in the minority.
New York is an example of a state that has pledged support for pre-K but has not provided the funds. The goal of the state’s Universal Prekindergarten program (UPK), which began in 1998, is to offer pre-K education to all 4-year-olds, but the latest figures show it currently serves only 44% of New York’s 4-year-olds, most of whom are in half day programs. Funding in 2011-2012 remained virtually flat for the third consecutive year, and the program enrolled 1,000 fewer students than it did the previous year. Only 65% of school districts offer the state program. The report warns that “inadequate funding can seriously impair pre-K quality and effectiveness,” and New York state provides on average only $3,707 per enrolled-child, roughly half the estimated per-child spending needed to meet NIEER quality standards benchmarks.
Describing Obama’s 2014 budget proposal as the “most significant opportunity to improve access to highly effective pre-K to date,” the authors urged every state to support a state-funded pre-K program regardless of how federal policy pans out.
Education in the years before kindergarten is increasingly recognized as playing an important role in preparing our youngest citizens for productive lives in the global economy. Yet, our nation’s public investment in their future through pre-K declined during the recent economic downturn at the very time that parental financial capacity to invest in their children was hardest hit. America will pay the price of that lapse for decades to come. It is not enough for states to simply revert to the pre-recession trend. Now is the time to reverse that trend, emphasizing quality as well as enrollment, and renew state commitment to a better future for our children through high-quality pre-K.