Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has released its annual yearbook — a comprehensive look at publicly-funded preschool programs — and found a mix of progress and stagnation: There are more preschool spots, but states aren’t investing enough in program quality. This year’s assessment also includes a special report on Dual Language Learners.

“Recent changes in federal policy – including the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – make it clear that progress in early education depends more than ever on the states,” NIEER Senior Co-Director Steven Barnett said.

Looking at the 2016-2017 academic year, the Yearbook notes that:

• across the country “state-funded preschool program enrollment exceeded 1.5 million children” or “33 percent of 4-year-olds and 5 percent of 3-year-olds”

• state funding for preschool rose two percent to some $7.6 billion, an increase of nearly $155 million (adjusted for inflation) since 2015-2016

• state funding per child was $5,008, a slight decline from 2015-16 adjusted for inflation

• 3 state-funded preschool programs met all 10 new quality standards benchmarks

• 10 programs met fewer than half, and

• 7 states do not invest any state dollars in preschool

In its assessment of state policies for Dual Language Learners, NIEER reduces its findings to two words: “Needs Improvement.” 

“More than 20 percent of all preschool-aged children in the US speak a language other than English at home, yet most state pre-K programs do not collect data on children’s home language, making it nearly impossible to design effective supports for young dual language learners,” a press release explains.

“Thirty-five state preschool programs have specific policies to support DLLs,” the special report notes, but these policies vary widely.

States that “stand out for having at least seven of the nine DLL policies we highlight” include Kansas, Maine, Minnesota Head Start, Nevada, and Texas. Of these states, only Nevada and Texas have a high population of DLLs. However, other high DLL population states, have important policies in place.” One example is California, which “requires written program plans for serving DLLs, provides extra funding for serving DLLs, monitors quality of DLL supports, and mandates specialized training for teachers working with DLLs.”


Here in Massachusetts, we’ve made recent progress on early education quality and funding, with an important focus on the early education workforce, and a commitment to serve all children from birth through school-age. For this we thank Governor Baker and the Legislature.

When it comes to preschool however, NIEER says that Massachusetts is investing less money and enrolling fewer children.

“Massachusetts enrollment fell overall, totaling about 8% of 4-year-olds and 5% of 3-year-olds in the state. State funding fell more than $500,000 (adjusted for inflation),” according to a press release.

NIEER compares all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to create a list of rankings. Massachusetts’ results are:

15th in access for 3-year-olds

34th in access for 4-year-olds

37th on state spending, and

40th on all reported spending

And as the Massachusetts summary shows, we meet 7 out of 10 of NIEER’s new pre-K quality benchmarks, including:

• comprehensive and aligned early learning standards

• maximum class sizes of 20 or less, and

• a staff to child ratio of 1:10 or lower

But the three new benchmarks that Massachusetts fails to meet are:

• requiring bachelor’s degrees for teachers

• requiring CDA (child development associate) degrees for assistant teachers, and

• requiring set amounts of professional development training for teachers and assistant teachers

At Strategies for Children, we are advocating for a bill that would move Massachusetts forward. “An Act ensuring high quality early education,” H.2874 filed by Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) and S.240 filed by Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) would award preschool expansion grants to high-needs communities that are ready to go with comprehensive implementation plans. It is a plan sure to move Massachusetts out of its currently mediocre NIEER rankings for preschool access and spending.

Our federal Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG), awarded in 2015, has been a huge boost. But that funding will expire in summer 2019, and Massachusetts will need a plan to sustain its 48 high-quality PEG classrooms in five cities. (Click here to ask your state legislators to expand preschool).

Children, of course, also need national action on these issues. Last month, U.S. News and World Report reported:

“ ‘I think there is a crisis in our country when it comes to child care and early learning,’ Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said during an education conference last week in Washington. ‘And if you don’t believe me, go to any school and talk to kindergarten teachers about different degrees of skill that students come with.’ ” Murray is also a former preschool teacher.