2012 “Worst Year” for Preschool in a Decade, Advocacy Group Reports

The 2011-2012 school year was the worst in a decade for progress in access to high-quality pre-K for America’s children, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The organization reached that conclusion in its annual State of Preschool report. NIEER’s 2012 Yearbook, released Monday, concludes state funding for pre-K decreased by over half a billion dollars in 2011-2012, the largest one-year drop ever. The organization blames in part the lingering effects of the recession on state budgets.

After a decade of growth, NIEER reports Pre-K enrollment has stalled, marking the first time with no increase in the percentage of children served in state pre-K. Approximately 1.3 million children attend state-funded preschool programs. Furthermore, state funding per child fell an average of more than $400 compared to the previous year, bringing funding down to $3,841 per child. This marked the first year that average real funding per child across the states slipped below $4,000 since NIEER began releasing its annual Yearbook in 2003. State spending per child has decreased by more than $1,100 since 2001-2002.

For the second year in a row, Florida and Oklahoma ranked 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the percentage of four-year-olds served by state preschool programs. Illinois led the nation in access for three-year-olds. Ten states, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, did not have state-funded preschool programs in 2011-12, according to NIEER.

The report points out the decline in funding has been accompanied by a reduction in program quality. NIEER’s annual Pre-K Yearbook examines how well each state met 10 benchmarks for quality preschool. Those benchmarks include the percentage of:

  1. teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree;
  2. teachers with specialized training in early child education;
  3. assistants with at least an associate degree in childhood development;
  4. teachers receiving at least 15 hours of professional development per year;
  5. state programs meeting designated early learning standards;
  6. state programs with an average class size at or below 20 children;
  7. state programs with a ratio of no more than 10 children for every staff member;
  8. state programs offering at least one screening for vision, hearing or a similar health service;
  9. state programs offering children at least one meal per day; and
  10. state programs with at least one monitoring site visit every five years.

Seven of the benchmarks declined in 2011-12; one remained unchanged. Only the percentage of teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree and the percentage of programs meeting early learning standards increased.

Only three states had policy changes that met additional benchmarks in 2011-2012, according to NIEER. California’s newly released state early learning standards fully met the definition of comprehensive standards. Ohio met an additional benchmark this year by requiring site visits for quality monitoring. Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts program required all lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree.

This comes amid a backdrop of an increased national spotlight on Pre-K access. In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama called on preschool to be available to all four-year-olds. His proposed budget, released in April, includes $75 billion in new funding over the next decade to expand access to low- to middle-income children who are not currently enrolled in quality preschool.