Over the past decade, pre-kindergarten enrollment across the country has increased, but states’ spending on pre-kindergarten has fallen 15% in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, according to a report – “The State of Preschool 2011″ – released yesterday in Washington by the National Institute for Early Education Research. State funding for pre-k was down almost $60 million in 2010-11, compared with the previous school year, the annual report also found.
The news, however, was not all bad. In his remarks at yesterday’s NIEER event, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referenced the previous day’s announcement of a new, albeit more modest, round of the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge. Massachusetts was one of nine states that shared in the $500 million Early Learning Challenge of FY11. The five states from the original round with the next highest scores — Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin – will be invited to apply for the $133 million that will be available in fiscal year 2012.
“High-quality early learning is what we want for our own children so it must be what we want for everyone’s children,” Duncan said at yesterday’s event, according to NIEER. Mentioning the Early Learning Challenge, he said, “Continued support is absolutely critical.”
“The $133 million for additional Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge state grants will come from a larger $550 million fund provided by Congress through the Department of Education’s fiscal year 2012 budget. Additional dollars from the 2012 appropriation will be used to run a new district-level Race to the Top competition. More details on the new competition will be available later this spring,” a news release from the Department of Education states.
“Eligibility for 2012 Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funding was based on the strength of applications among States that participated but did not receive awards in the 2011 competition. New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, and Wisconsin each earned approximately 75% or more of total points possible on a 300-point scale in the 2011 competition. The five States will each be eligible to apply for up to 50% of the requested award amount in last year’s application.”
Meanwhile, the decline in state support for pre-k, NIEER notes, comes after a “decade of progress” during which many states launched or improved pre-k programs. “A decline of this magnitude should serve as a wake-up call for parents and policy leaders about how well we are preparing today’s preschoolers to succeed in school and later find good jobs in a competitive market,” NIEER Director Steve Barnett said in a news release.
State pre-kindergarten programs served 28% of all 4-year-olds and 3% of all 3-year-olds, NIEER reports, which brings total enrollment to more than 1.3 million. “Some states have opted to expand enrollment rather than maintain quality, resulting in greater access but lower standards,” the NIEER news release reports.
NIEER finds that Massachusetts spent $51.9 million on pre-kindergarten in 2011, which it estimates comes to $3,691 per child, down from $6,853 per child in 2002. Massachusetts focuses on improving and supporting the mixed delivery system of private and public providers, which distinguishes it from many states that have established separate pre-k programs. NIEER’s calculation of pre-k spending in Massachusetts includes the Universal Pre-Kindergarten grant program, subsidies to programs with UPK classrooms, public pre-k special needs funds and federal stimulus dollars. NIEER also notes that its per-child spending estimates may not capture additional federal or local funds.
The new NIEER report also looks at benchmarks of quality – including early learning standards, teacher education and class size. Massachusetts met six of NIEER’s 10 quality benchmarks: comprehensive standards, teacher in-service training, a staff-child ration of 1:10 or better, health screening and support services, and monitoring through site visits.
“States,” Barnett said, “need to plan for future growth in pre-k just as they would for major projects, such as infrastructure, and avoid viewing pre-k as a year-to-year funding decision.”