Federal funding protected preschool programs from devastating declines

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and intensified issues of access to high-quality early childhood education, leading to sharp declines in enrollment and state funding during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the 2021 State of Preschool Yearbook report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

According to the report, 298,000 fewer children were enrolled in state-funded preschools nationwide than a year earlier because of difficulties created by the pandemic such as health risks, closed classrooms and remote preschool. States served less than 30 percent of 4-year-olds and less than 5 percent of 3-year-olds in 2020-2021.

While most states preserved capacity during 2020-2021, allowing enrollments to rebound in the current year, most children still did not have access to publicly funded preschool programs, according to the report. Total state pre-K spending was $8.98 billion, a nearly $254 million decrease from the previous year and the sharpest decline in funding since the Great Recession.

“Our country has yet to adequately invest in high-quality preschool programs, while the pandemic has erased a decade of progress and exacerbated inequality,” said W. Steven Barnett, NIEER’s founder and senior co-director. “Children and parents need high-quality, full-day preschool programs that support early learning and parental employment. The pandemic has made it even more clear that such preschool programs are essential for young children and their families. Every level of government should step up. Federal pandemic relief funds helped to protect state pre-K, and even a modest long-term federal investment in preschool could dramatically accelerate progress.”

States used at least $440 million in pandemic relief funding to support preschool, which more than offset the decline in state spending and preserved pre-K capacity that would have been lost. However, state spending per child, adjusted for inflation, remains about the same as it was 20 years ago.

The annual survey — focused on the first school year of the pandemic found:

  • Enrollment in state-funded preschool dropped for the first time in 20 years.
  • Total state funding for preschool programs declined for the first time since 2014.
  • Federal pandemic relief funding offset decreased state preschool spending.
  • Issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—inadequate funding and limited access—aren’t new.
  • Universal access at age 4 is a reality or within reach in 16 states and Washington, D.C. Six states and Washington, D.C., serve at least 70 percent of 4-year-olds across state preschool, Head Start and special education. Ten other states could reach 70 percent within 5 years by increasing enrollment rates five percentage points per year.
  • Six states still fund no pre-kindergarten program at all.
  • Most states need to substantially increase their investments in preschool just to reach all children in low-income families with high quality, full-day programs.
  • Even a modest federal commitment could help raise quality and decrease cross-state disparities in access.

“Too many children missed out on a year of learning. States must implement best practices that mitigate health risks in order to get children back into classrooms,” said Allison Friedman-Krauss, an assistant research professor at NIEER. “And teachers, who were already underpaid and often did not receive benefits, are burnt out as they’ve worked to provide support and learning to young students amid the challenges of the past year. There is no time to waste. State-funded programs desperately need the resources to address pervasive problems in access to high-quality early learning and to support teachers.”