Federal/state partnership needed to expand quality, full-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds

The COVID-19 pandemic set back state preschool enrollment and funding across the United States more than any other education sector, according to the 2020 State of Preschool Yearbook by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

The annual survey found that five million 3-and-four year olds lack access to preschool and while growth in state-funded preschool was slowing before the pandemic, when kids were sent home to learn virtually there were even more serious setbacks.

“Lawmakers need to act now to address learning loss and stress on young children and families and to get pre-K back on track,” said W. Steven Barnett, NIEER’s founder and senior co-director.

“Most states spend too little to support quality, full-day pre-K that will reach all their children,” Barnett said.

Only eight states enroll more than 50 percent of their 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K and only six state-funded preschool programs met all 10 quality standards benchmarks.

Enrollment in state-funded preschool increased slightly in 2019-2020 but took a hit in 2020-2021 as programs closed or only offered virtual learning and parents were hesitant to send children to in-person school during the pandemic.

In several of the largest states, including Florida and Texas, quality standards are low and most children in pre-K are unlikely to receive the quality of education needed to provide long-term gains in learning and development.

“Funding is a key impediment to quality and current spending is less than half of what is needed in many states,” said Allison Friedman-Krauss, NIEER assistant research professor. “Teaching staff are poorly paid and some programs offer children as little as 10 hours of preschool each week. To have a lasting impact, more funding is needed to improve quality for children, support full-day programs and provide teachers with competitive salaries and benefits.”

According to the new report, pre-K programs nationwide need an average of at least $12,500 annually per child to provide quality education, which is a significant increase from current investments in most states, which average $5499 per child for pre-K programs.

“For nearly 20 years, annual progress on preschool has been slow and uneven, and at this pace universal pre-K will remain an unfulfilled promise into the next century,” said Barnett. “Beyond federal rescue and recovery dollars for the short-term, we need a new federal-state partnership to accelerate progress toward high-quality pre-K beginning with the most disadvantaged children, many of whom still receive no pre-K at all. This would require that federal and state governments steadily increase spending on pre-K during the next 30 years, expanding programs to reach all 3- and 4-year-olds beginning with the many in low-income families who still do not attend pre-K.” 

Nationwide, the survey reveals bipartisan support for preschool with both "red" and "blue" states among the nation's leaders in quality pre-K. According to the researchers, that offers hope that the nation can move ahead to expand access to quality pre-K more rapidly. 

Friedman-Krauss said “despite the growing need, few states have adequate policies to support preschool-age dual language learners.”

Only 12 state-funded preschool programs require teachers to have specific training or qualifications related to working with dual language learners and only 31 programs know the exact number of children enrolled who speak a language other than English. 

The 2020 State of Preschool Yearbook is the only national report on state-funded preschool programs, tracking enrollment, spending and policies to support quality since 2002. This year’s report includes a special section on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on state-funded preschool programs.