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Coronavirus Fallout Threatens States' Prekindergarten Progress, Report Warns

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States have made modest progress in expanding access to high-quality prekindergarten programs, but budget cuts resulting from the coronavirus crisis could erode or erase those gains, which are already far from what's needed to keep pace with other countries.

That's the conclusion of a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. The organization advocates for early-education funding and "quality benchmarks," like comprehensive learning standards, teacher training requirements, and small class sizes.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia served 1.6 million children in state prekindergarten programs in the 2018-19 school year, the annual report found. States spent more than $8.7 billion on pre-K, an inflation-adjusted 3.5 percent increase from previous year, but state spending per child remained flat, the report says. And only 8 percent of children were enrolled in prekindergarten programs that met nine or 10 of NIEER's quality benchmarks.

Now, early-education advocates fear looming state budget cuts will wipe out growth in participation and quality, said NIEER's senior co-director and founder Steven Barnett. That's because state funding for early education is discretionary, leaving programs unprotected, he said, echoing a recent warning by Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University K-12 finance professor.

"If we're looking at what we are going to preserve, we ought to be preserving our seed corn," Barnett said in a call with reporters. "This is the only future we have."

To bolster progress in early education, Barnett said the next federal bill providing relief from the pandemic should include designated funding for state prekindergarten programs. 

States, many of which have seen bipartisan support for early education, should learn lessons from the 2008 recession's affects on prekindergarten efforts, NIEER advises. Among them: There was a lag between the official end of the Great Recession and state funding drops, and as that spending declined, quality standards did as well. Some states have still not fully reversed the changes they made during that time, like larger maximum class sizes, the report says.

And budget cuts this year could lead to changes that will be felt for years, said Ross Hunter, secretary of Washington's Department of Children, Youth, and Families.

"I'm very worried about losing our investment in a high-quality staff," he told reporters on the NIEER conference call. "We've all trained up a lot of teachers. You can't just walk in off the street and be a high-quality teacher." 

In addition to the designated federal funding, the report also recommends that:

  • Policymakers should increase coordination between federal Head Start programs and state offerings to ensure more high-poverty children are served. About 40 percent of children in families with annual incomes below $10,000 do not attend pre-K, the report says.
  • Federal officials should allow the 26 states that received Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five awards the flexibility to use that money to plan for possible continuation of distance learning and increased need.
  • Changes to early-education program requirements related to the coronavirus and resulting school closures should be temporary.

Bipartisan Support for Early Education

While prekindergarten was a big topic for Democratic presidential candidates this year, NIEER makes the case that it has bipartisan support. Using Gallup poll data about political affiliations, it color-coded the states with the highest pre-K enrollment: blue for that that lean liberal, red for states that lean conservative, purple for states considered "average."

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Wide Variations in Pre-K Enrollment

While some states enroll a majority of 4-year-olds in their early-childhood programs, others lag far behind, the report says.

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State programs serve a majority of 4-year-olds enrolled in early-childhood education, while 3-year-olds are more likely to be in private programs. That may be because many states start universal programs at four before expanding them to younger children.

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Quality Benchmarks

NIEER sets benchmarks for program quality in 10 areas, which are pictured below.

For this year's report, just four states met all of those benchmarks: Alabama, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Mississippi. Seven met nine benchmarks: Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Twelve programs met fewer than half of the quality standards.

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Read the whole report, and state-by-state profiles, here.

Photo: Getty


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