Blog: The Educated Reporter

Study: Nation’s Pre-K Enrollment Up As State Funding for Programs Slides

Sec. of Education Arne Duncan takes questions with National Institute for Early Education Research Co-Director Steven Barnett at the library of Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn)

Average state level funding for pre-kindergarten programs–on the whole and per child–has declined since 2009 according to a new study by a research group specializing in early education research.

The study also found that though such programs can offset the effects of poverty and help to improve school performance down the line, children from lower-income households are less likely to take part in pre-K programs than those from wealthy families.

State spending per child on pre-K services has declined from $4,866 in 2002 to $4,151 in 2011. Without assistance from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, last year’s level of spending would have been the lowest total since the researchers began keeping track of this data over a decade ago.

The group, National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) based out of Rutgers University, announced the findings of the report this morning at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., where Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke about their research.

“The news is at best mixed,” said Duncan about NIEER’s research. “It’s pennywise, but pound foolish” to cut early education spending, he added.

The drop in per pupil spending follows a national trend in which more children are enrolled in these classes even as state financial commitments wane. Despite an additional $127 million in federal stimulus funds, states on the whole have been spending less since 2009 when adjusted for inflation. In the past two years, $90 million in state pre-K spending has been cut.

Some states have been more willing to keep money for pre-K programs flowing: 11 states upped their spending levels. But 26 lowered theirs, and 11 states have fully dismantled their state-based pre-K classes.

Nationally, about 28 percent of four-year olds—more than 1.1 million kids—are enrolled in some type of state-financed pre-K program, according to NIEER. Those numbers have doubled since 2002. Among three-year olds, the participation rate is much lower at 4 percent, virtually unmoved from 2002 figures of 3 percent. Overall, about 1.3 million children are enrolled in state-financed pre-K programs. 

When including federally backed programs and those that require tuition, NIEER calculates roughly 75 percent of four-year olds and 50 percent of three-year olds take part in pre-K learning environments. Also based on NIEER calculations, 30 percent of those students are enrolled in a private program.

Income seemed to predict enrollment, the authors point out: Children from the top quintile had a 90 percent participation rate in pre-K programs, much higher than the 65 percent that marked kids from households in the lowest two quintiles.

The report also notes that only 57 percent of lead instructors have bachelor’s degrees (up from 48 compared to a decade ago) and most assistants are required only to possess a high school diploma.  In 2013, 50 percent of federal Head Start instructors will be required to have a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

Asked why the goal isn’t across the board bachelor’s minimums for Head Start teachers, Steven Barnett, co-director of NIEER, said salaries are too low; Head Start instructors earn half the salary, on average, that primary and secondary teachers make. Still, Barnett explained, there’s a spill-over effect that improves all teachers when half of them have a college education.

Last year’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge awarded nine states $500 million to develop and expand their early education programs, assessments, and teacher training services. Five more states are finalists for a smaller $133 million federal pot of grants this year.

In 2011, NIEER proposed a slew of funding schemes and state-federal partnerships to bring more children into early education programs. NIEER also has ranked states along a series of performance indexes that gauge their prekindergarten programs. Those results can be found here

*In an earlier version of this article, the number of four-year olds in state-financed pre-K programs was stated to be 1.3 million kids, rather than 1.1 million. 1.3 million reflects the total number of children in such pre-K programs. We regret this error.