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State-Funded Pre-K Sees Slow Enrollment Growth, Says New National Report

About a third of the nation's 4-year-olds—1.3 million children— were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs nationwide during the 2017-18 school year, an increase of about 35,000 children during from the previous year. at the current rate of growth, it would take 20 years for state preschool programs to have enough seats to enroll half of the nation's 4-year-olds. 

For 3-year-olds, the number enrolled was much lower than for older children: About 227,000 were enrolled in state-funded programs, or about 6 percent of the 3-year-old population overall. 

The figures come from the annual "State of Preschool" yearbook published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University. Currently, 44 states and the District of Columbia offer state-funded preschool. The holdouts: Idaho, Indiana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Indiana recently changed eligibility for its "On My Way Pre-K" program, so it no longer meets NIEER's definition of state-funded preschool. At least one parent or guardian has to be working or in school for children to qualify for Indiana's program.

Montana and North Dakota started small programs in the 2017-18 school year, moving off the list of states that have no state funding for preschool. Montana's program served a little over 300 4-year-olds, while North Dakota's program enrolled 965.

The organization found that much of the growth in state programs for 4-year-olds came from an infusion of funds from the federal Preschool Development Grant program, created during the Obama administration. But though the Preschool Development Grants still exist, they are much different now than they were during the Obama years, which saw 18 states receive a total of $1 billion over four years. With that money now gone, it's a question as to whether states will be able to sustain the same number of preschool seats, the report notes. 

The enrollment numbers change when including all public programs for preschool, such as Head Start, which is federally funded. About 44 percent of 4-year-olds and 16 percent of 3-year-olds were served by state preschool and Head Start combined.

State funding per child for preschool varied dramatically, from a low of $777 per child in North Dakota's new program, which enrolled 965 children from low-income families in the 2017-18 school year, to $17,545 per child in the District of Columbia, which enrolls 85 percent of the city's 4-year-olds and 73 percent of its 3-year-olds. States contributed an average of $5,170 per child enrolled in state preschool.  

The report also examined salary parity for preschool teachers. Few states require equal salary for pre-K teachers and K-3 teachers with similar qualifications; at the same time, 28 states require preschool teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree. Preschool pay gaps of $20,000 to $30,000 per year are common, the report notes. 

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