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Pre-K Access Lacking in Many Rural States, Report Says

Four-year-olds in several of the most rural states lack access to state-funded preschool programs, but those who do have access are most likely in high-quality programs, according to a new federally funded report.

"The State of Preschool Yearbook 2013," which was released by The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) on Tuesday, ranked states on a variety of early-childhood measures including access for 3- and 4-year olds, per-child spending, and program quality.

During the 2012-13 school year, 10 states did not offer a preschool program for 3- or 4-year-olds. Eight of those states have a higher percentage of students enrolled in rural schools than the national average of 25 percent. In three of the states without programs, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota, more than 45 percent of public school students attend rural schools.  

In the dozen states with the largest percentages of students in rural schools, the report found that access varied greatly. In Vermont, 71 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded early education, compared to only 6 percent in Alabama and 3 percent in Alaska. Nationwide, about 28 percent of students are enrolled in a state preschool program. 

Although access may be lacking or inconsistent, many rural states that do offer preschool received high scores in quality standards, which look at program aspects like requiring that preschool teachers have a bachelor's degree and offering vision, hearing, or health services to children. Alabama and Alaska, which scored low in access, received perfect scores, a 10, in quality. North Carolina, which serves 23 percent of its 4-year-olds, also received a perfect score in quality, while Arkansas and Kentucky received nine out of 10 points. Vermont's program, while serving a high percentage of 4-year-olds, received only four points for quality.

West Virginia was one of the most high-ranking rural states in both access and quality. The state serves 62 percent of 4-year-olds and received eight out of 10 quality points.  

While the national average of per-child spending increased slightly during the 2012-13 school year, several rural states saw funding decrease. Alaska, Vermont, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama all decreased spending, but remained either close to or above the national average of $4,026 per child.

Since the data were collected, some rural states have made efforts to improve access to preschool programs. Montana, which does not currently offer a program, applied for federal funding for early learning in 2013. Mississippi will launch its first state-funded program in the 2014-15 school year, although it will serve only about 6 percent of its 4-year-olds. 

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