Report Shows State-Funded Preschool Enrollment Growing Slowly


State-funded preschool programs are still working on a return to pre-recession levels of funding while the number of children enrolled increased modestly during the 2013-2014 school year.

Although preschool enrollment is increasing, it is doing so slowly according to a report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Many areas in the country suffer from severe inequality, causing scores of children to have inadequate preschool programs, writes Rebecca Klein for The Huffington Post.

“There have been some great improvements,” NIEER Director Steve Barnett told The Huffington Post. “But it matters more than ever what ZIP code you live in.”

State-funded preschools across the nation added around 8,500 seats, which means 4% of 3-year-olds and 29% of 4-year-olds received the benefit of these programs. The report, the State of Preschool 2014, shows that if enrollment continues to grow at its current rate, it will take 75 years to reach 50% enrollment for 4-year-olds and 150 years to reach 70% enrollment. Even though state funding for preschool programs has increased by $120 million, when adjusted for inflation, the funding is less than it was before the 2011-2012 school year when many states had to cut back on funding.

There have been some standards that have improved, said Barnett, such as lowered staff-student ratios in many areas. Mississippi showed growth, having been the first state to initiate a state pre-K program in January 2014. The real problem is that per-student funding has not improved nationwide, NIEER says.

“If we keep eroding the amount we spent per pupil, [quality is] not going to happen,” Barnett said. “We’re not going to be able to put good teachers in classrooms.”

Barnett also pointed to the Obama administration’s Preschool Development Grant program, which has given access to millions of dollars for states to expand their preschool programs. As for individual states, the programs are being supported, says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“So many states — both Republican and Democratic governors — have increased preschool enrollment and the quality of their programs.”

“Providing all children, particularly those most at risk, with a quality preschool experience is one of the best investments our country can make,” Duncan said.

The 10 benchmarks which measure the quality of a preschool program include class size, teacher training, and nutritious meals. The states that have made an A+ on all 10 include North Carolina, Rhode Island, Alabama, Alaska, and Mississippi.

The two states with the lowest marks are Texas and Florida. Both states have good enrollment numbers, but NIEER’s report gives them low ratings on the quality of the programs, writes Cory Turner of NPR.

“The focus of the movement in preschool education has been on increasing the amount of it and getting more and more children into the pre-K door,” she says. “And what we have not invested in is making sure that what they experience on the other side of that door is going to support the development of their hearts and minds and brains,” says Georgetown University’s Deborah Phillips, who studies early childhood programs.

Washington, DC has low graduation rates, but its long-term hopes of educational improvement are being put into its preschool programs, on which it is spending more than any state on the list. Almost all of NIEER’s quality ratings have been met by the District’s pre-K programs, which have enrolled nearly 99% of Washington, D.C. 4-year-olds.