This week the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released its highly anticipated annual State of Preschool Yearbook. The findings show a slight increase in spending by both Republican and Democratic governors. Additionally, NIEER reports measured growth in state pre-K enrollment and an increase in quality standards across state programs.
In response to the slow growth in enrollment over the course of the year, the report highlights the urgent need to increase access to quality pre-K at a faster rate, emphasizing, “At the 2013-2014 growth rate it would take 75 years for states to reach 50 percent enrollment at age four and 150 years to reach 70 percent enrollment.” And, for three-year-olds, no state comes close to Washington, DC, which serves more than 65 percent of this age group. Vermont, the next ranking state, only serves 25% of three-year-olds.
In 2014, NIEER reports that total state funding for pre-K increased by more than $116 million, which is equivalent to a one-percent increase in real dollars. The average state spending per child, though, increased by merely $61 to its current level of $4,125, adjusted for inflation. Overall, in 19 of the 41 states that offer pre-K programs, the average spending per child increased by at least one percent. Spending per child enrolled continues to be below levels prior to the recession.
When it comes to children’s enrollment in pre-K programs, growth has been slow. In 2013-2014, state funded programs served 1.3 million three- and four-year-olds, of which about 85 percent of children were age four. Similarly to last year’s report, the share of three- and four-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K programs has remained stagnant since the 2010-2011 school year. Nationally, only 29 percent of four-year-olds and 4 percent of three-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded pre-K program. However, it is important to note that NIEER did not collect data from state programs that began in the middle of the 2013-2014 school year, such as those in Mississippi, Hawaii, and Indiana. Additionally, Montana is developing a state pre-K program, with the $10 million Preschool Development Grant it received in December 2014. Only six states — Idaho, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming — do not offer any state pre-K program.
Access to pre-K remains largely dependent on a family’s zip code. The report displays the percentage of 4-year-olds served in a pre-K program by state — showing the wide variation in access across the country. The District of Columbia serves the highest percentage of both three- and four-year-olds. Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont serve over 75 percent of their state’s four-year-olds. Still almost half of states serve less than 50 percent of four-year-olds in pre-K programs, which highlights the disparities in access across the United States.
Access alone is not all that matters. NIEER also rates state pre-K programs on 10 research-based quality benchmarks. Some of these benchmarks include comprehensive early learning state standards, lead teachers with specialized training in pre-K, and state site visits (at least every five years).
Seven states made improvements according to the quality standards. Seventeen states met eight or more of the quality standards. Although there have been improvements in quality in some state pre-K programs, more than 40 percent of children enrolled were served in programs that met fewer than half of the quality benchmarks.
There is still a striking need to increase children’s access to high-quality pre-K programs.
The 2014 Preschool Yearbook shows steady, but slow growth. The country has yet to recover its pre-recession spending and enrollment levels. The majority of states continue to fall below the bar on quality. State policymakers must pick-up the pace of investment to see an impactful change in pre-K access within our lifetime.