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Public spending on preschool hasn’t gone up in two decades

Ali Budner May 18, 2023
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Public funding for preschools has stagnated in the last 20 years. Some states like New Jersey are looking to change that. Daria Nipot / Getty Images

Public spending on preschool hasn’t gone up in two decades

Ali Budner May 18, 2023
Heard on:
Public funding for preschools has stagnated in the last 20 years. Some states like New Jersey are looking to change that. Daria Nipot / Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Once you account for inflation, public spending on preschool hasn’t increased in two decades, according to the latest annual report on the state of preschool education by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Despite the stagnation in funding, there’s growing momentum to fund universal pre-K at the state leve. Six states plus Washington D.C. already offer free preschool to every child, and several more states have passed laws within the past year to provide it in the near future.

Still, some of those states are also grappling with teacher shortages and compensation. 

The NIEER has studied preschool programs in the U.S. for two decades, according to Steve Barnett, who works with the Institute and helped author the latest report.

“The 20-year perspective is somewhat startling,” Barnett said. “Spending per child is about where it was in 2002.” He said there are consequences to that stagnation in spending increases.

“About half the kids in poverty still don’t enroll in a preschool program of any kind, public or private at three and four,” Barnett explained. According to him, this will come back to haunt states when those three and four-year-olds grow up. 

Studies have shown that access to preschool can improve people’s lives long term. 

However, Barnett also pointed out that a number of states do provide universal pre-K, several more have passed new laws to get it going, and others are exploring it.

Among those states is New Jersey. A third of New Jersey school districts already offer preschool for everyone, according to Barnett.

Wendy Rodriguez lives in one of those districts and her four-year-old attends school for free.

“They teach him how to do his name. He knows all the letters. And I’m very impressed,” she said.

Rodriguez has a degree in early education herself. But she’s currently unemployed. So when she found out her son’s pre-K education would be free, “I was so excited. Very excited,” Rodriguez said.

If she had to pay for the preschool, her son probably wouldn’t be able to go. Rodriguez is looking for work as a preschool teacher, but she said the pay is often just too low.

That low pay is one of the challenges for many pre-K funding programs. New Mexico voters last year approved a ballot measure to boost funding for early education.

“With this new funding, we are able to build salary parity into what we pay pre-K programs,” said Sarah Mickelson with New Mexico’s early childhood education and care department.

Mickelson said there’s still a long way to go before her state gets to universal pre-K, but she says the state has made it a priority because, “Families are at their economically weakest when they have young children.”

Mickelson said that time when kids’ brain development is critical. 

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