Providing all kids in the U.S. with high-quality, publicly-funded preschool would take a concentrated overhaul to strengthen and build up existing state programs.
At the current progress rate, preschool for all children would take 300 years to achieve, according to Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, which issued the State of Preschool 2014 report Monday.
The 2013-14 school year saw state funding for pre-K increase by more than $116 million nationwide, or 1 percent, adjusted for inflation. About half of that spending was in just one state — Michigan.
Barnett says since spending varies widely state to state, the country is still struggling to make gains in enrollment, funding and quality; ten states don’t provide state–funded pre–K programs at all.
“When the average doesn’t budge, but some places are moving rapidly ahead, that just tells you other places are dropping behind,” he says.
In five states in 2013-14, state funding per child for pre-K fell by 10 percent or more from the previous year, while in five different states, per-child spending increased by the same margin.
Barnett says the country spends about $1,000 less per pupil — adjusted for inflation — on pre-K now than a decade ago.
“Preschools are turning the corner, but they are turning so slowly,” he says. “If we moved at the same rate as last year it would be 75 years before we enrolled half of the kids.”
That’s no exaggeration. From 2006 to 2010, enrollment increased every year at a steady pace. Barnett says that rate would have put half of the kids in the country in preschool in just 10 years. But from 2010 to 2014, there was effectively no progress made.
The report also reveals stark regional differences, with more students served in the east and south, compared to the west.
“It matters tremendously where you live,” Barnett says. “Last time we measured quality, we saw the same disparities. There’s no sense of urgency in many states.”
He says more than half a million children — 40 percent of nationwide enrollment — were in programs that met less than half of the NIEER quality standards benchmarks.
“The vast majority of children served in state-funded pre-K are in programs where funding per child may be inadequate to provide a quality education.”
—State of Preschool 2014
Barnett says investing in preschool yields a high return, but only if states also invest in high-quality education standards.