Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research) has just released its 2013 State of Preschool Yearbook. The news is mixed for state-funded preschool programs in the 2012-13 school year.

The yearbook points to the many challenges the country faces in expanding access to high-quality early education; but there are also promising glimmers of hope that the nation could build upon.

“Our nation has emerged from the recession, but preschool-age children are being left to suffer its effects,” Steve Barnett, NIEER’s director, said in a press release. “A year ago, our data showed a half-billion-dollar cut in funding for state pre-K and stalled enrollment. For 2012-2013, we find that enrollment is down and funding per child, while up slightly, remains stalled at near-historic lows.”

“The loss of 9,160 children from enrollment at age 4 and 42 children at age 3 are modest changes, but this is the first decrease we have observed,” the yearbook says. “At the same time, this represents a reversal—or at least a pause—of the trend toward spreading too little funding over ever more children, which led to expanded access while jeopardizing program quality.”

Twitter users can join the conversation @PreschoolToday #YB2013

Among the yearbook’s national findings:

– Some 1.3 million children attended state-funded pre-K

– 1.1 million are 4-year-olds and make up 28 percent of all children age 4

– some 200,000 children are 3-year-olds and make up about four percent of all children age 3

– More than half a million children, 41 percent of nationwide enrollment, attended programs that met fewer than half of the quality standards benchmarks.

– NIEER could only verify that 15 states provide enough per-child funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards. Since only 19 percent of children enrolled in state-funded pre-K attend those programs, “it is possible that most children served by state pre-K attend programs where funding per child is inadequate to provide a quality early education.”

The yearbook’s bright spots include long-term improvements. From 2002 to 2013, there were overall increases in the percentages of teachers with bachelor’s degrees and specialized early childhood training. In addition, early learning standards are more commonly used; and teacher-student ratios have gotten better over time.

In Massachusetts

Along with several other cities around the country, Boston received kudos for developing its own early childhood program.

As for Massachusetts, the yearbook says that the state “has recently lost ground.” [NIEER bases Massachusetts state investment in pre-k on programs receiving UPK grant funding and public school Grant 391 funding for inclusive preschool settings, both for fiscal year 2013.]

– The commonwealth ranked 28th in the nation on preschool accessibility for 4-year-olds, down from 15th in 2001-2002.

 – Massachusetts fell from 17th last year to 20th this year on per pupil funding, down from 8th a decade ago.

 – Massachusetts enrolls 4 percent of 3-year-olds in pre-K programs, ranking 17th of the 27 states serving 3-year-olds.

“Governor Patrick has been a strong supporter of pre-K and has pushed to expand program funding,” Barnett said, adding, “The legislature has taken action to partially fund a preschool expansion, which we hope is just the first of many steps in the right direction.”

Despite noteworthy increases in the FY14 state budget to reduce the state’s income-eligible waiting list for early education access, Massachusetts still has a long way to go to ensure universal access to high-quality pre-k, particularly in high-needs communities such as the Gateway Cities.

Paving the Road to Progress

The yearbook notes that as states recover from the 2008 recession, they “appear to be at an important crossroads.” Now, as revenues normalize, states “need to move beyond modest one or two percent increases just to make up for lost ground during the recession. If pre-K is to be made available to even all children under 200 percent of the poverty level within the next 20 years, even larger increases will be required.”

NIEER calls on states to make major policy changes that will open more doors to high-quality early education and care. Among the specific recommendations for states:

– Increase preschool program enrollment

– Make substantial investments in preschool

– Collect data on the quality of pre-K teaching practices

– Develop data systems that collect demographics on who attends preschool and on how well they are being served

The yearbook also says that the federal government should offer financial incentives to encourage states to pursue ambitious goals for improving enrollment, quality and state funding. And citizens “can use the information provided here to compare their own state’s progress with that in other states and promises made by the Governor and state legislature, and to hold them accountable for results.”

High-quality preschool programs promise to give children the strong start they need for lifelong success in an increasingly high-tech economy that demands skilled workers. Given this, Barnett is right to observe that, “If ever there were a time for leaders at the local, state, and national levels to unite in their efforts to provide high-quality preschool education to our next generation, this is it.”