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More Children Enrolled in Pre-K, But Few States Meet All Benchmarks, Report Says

More young children are enrolled in state-funded early-childhood education programs across the country, the National Institute for Early Education Research says in its latest annual report, but only Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island meet all of the organization's new benchmarks for quality.

This year's "State of Preschool Yearbook," which covers the 2016-17 school year, focuses on what the organization says are growing disparities in early-childhood education between states and even in communities within the same state.

"When pre-K access and quality varies by where we live, so does our future and the future of our children," W. Steven Barnett, NIEER's founder and senior co-director, said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. NIEER is an advocacy organization based at Rutgers University that supports high-quality early-childhood education through academic research.

The report, released Wednesday, found that 10 states enrolled more than 50 percent of their 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool, while five states enrolled more than 70 percent. On average, states served more than a third of their 4-year-olds in these programs.

When NIEER began tracking this data in 2002, just three states and the District of Columbia enrolled more than a third of their 4-year-olds.

National.Pie.Chart (002).jpg

During the 2015-16 school year, state-funded preschool enrolled 1.49 million students, and the next year that jumped to 1.52 million, the most ever reported by NIEER.

States spent $7.6 billion on pre-K last academic year, an inflation-adjusted 2 percent hike over the 2015-16 school year, the report found. But per-pupil spending has actually gone down since 2002 when adjusted for inflation, it said.

NIEER found wide disparities in per-child spending. In New Jersey, for example, the state provides $12,000 per child for early-childhood programs. Seven other states spend at least $7,000 per child, while seven states spend less than half of that.

Despite growth in the number of programs and a modest increase in spending, Barnett expressed concern about the quality of these programs.

"What's most distressing for us is the tendency to trade quantity for quality, to prioritize quantity over quality, and yet not grow quantity very quickly overall," said Barnett. "It's going to take us a very, very long time, certainly not within my lifetime at the current pace, to reach every child in every state."

When it comes to reaching 3-year-olds, states are moving even more slowly. In 2002, 26 states provided programs for 3-year-olds. In 2017, that had grown by just three states.   

Eight states met fewer than five of the new 10 NIEER benchmarks for program quality, and Barnett noted that some of those states have the highest numbers of children living in poverty. The benchmarks include things such as the requirement that the lead teacher in every preschool classroom have a bachelor's degree, that class sizes be capped at 20 students, and that teachers and assistant teachers be required to have at least 15 hours of annual in-service training.

"Many children who need it most don't have access to high quality," said Barnett who praised Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island for expanding enrollment while meeting high-quality standards.

The report also includes a section on how state-funded preschool supports dual-language learners. About 23 percent of preschool students are dual-language learners, and the report notes that research shows these students particularly benefit from high-quality preschool.

Researchers found that only 26 public preschool programs in 24 states and Guam actually gather data on students' home language. "That makes it nearly impossible to design effective supports for them," said Barnett.

Graphic courtesy of NIEER

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