State pre-K funding shrunk by over half a billion dollars from the 2010-11 to the 2011-12 school year. That was the largest one-year decrease in the last 10 years, leading the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) to declare it the "worst year in a decade” for high-quality pre-K access across the United States. NIEER’s The State of Preschool 2012 Yearbook, released today, argues that while some of the downturn stems from the continuing strain the economic recession has placed on state budgets, the decrease in funding is a part of a longer-term trend by states over the past decade to defund high-quality pre-K programs.
As a consequence of this $548 million decrease in inflation-adjusted funding, this was the first year in the last 10 that the percentage of children served by state-funded pre-K did not increase, remaining stagnant at 28 percent of 4-year olds and four percent of 3-year olds.
And even after states saved money by holding enrollment constant, state funding per pre-K child still dropped by more than $400 below the previous year’s levels – and by more than $1,100 dollars since 2002 – to $3,841. This is the first year since NIEER started tracking pre-K funding in 2002 that per-child spending has dropped below $4,000, to its lowest-ever $3,841 per child in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The funding drops don’t just affect access to pre-K. NIEER also noticed a drop in the quality metrics met by many states. As funding decreases, one of the first things that states drop are site visits, which are used to ensure that programs are administering high-quality pre-K. "You don't get results in pre-K if you don't have quality," said NIEER President Steve Barnett on a call with reporters last week. "States not monitoring quality really put quality in jeopardy." Seven states lost ground in NIEER's Quality Standards Benchmarks checklist.
It wasn’t all bad news, though. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia increased enrollment in pre-K programs, including increases of at least 5 percentage points over last year in Maine and Wisconsin. And three programs have improved in quality since last year, earning higher rankings against NIEER’s benchmarks for the quality of programs.
As we've discussed before, the Early Ed Watch team rely heavily on NIEER's data, which is rigorously collected and verified every year. These headline facts and figures are helpful for a general audience, but another huge value in the yearbook lies in the state-by-state data pages and NIEER’s thorough appendices, which can best show differences between states and help fuel dialogue among decision makers about how to ensure more children gain pre-K access.
Here at New America, we use NIEER data as one data source in our interactive database for the Federal Education Budget Project. That project enables users to search, by state and by school district, for enrollment and funding information on state-funded pre-K, Head Start, and special education services for preschoolers. We also include pages that provide background and analysis of funding issues that affect pre-K programs (as well as PreK-12 education and higher education).
And one final note: After 10 years of providing invaluable research to the education policy community, NIEER is no longer funded by Pew Charitable Trusts (one reason it no longer publishes print editions of its annual yearbook). However, the organization is being considered for a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to continue to survey states about their pre-K programs. We are hopeful that NCES will pick up the baton and continue to fund NIEER’s vital work in the field of preschool data.