States continue to enroll more young children in public preschool, but nine state-funded programs meet fewer than half of the quality indicators set by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), the Rutgers University-based center reports in this year’s State of Preschool Yearbook.
Those states that meet few recommended quality standards serve large populations of preschoolers, which suggests that “many children who need it most don’t have access to high-quality preschool,” Steven Barnett, senior co-director of NIEER, said in a press call Tuesday. Seven states still don’t have state-funded programs.
Ranking states in three categories — access to state preschool, average spending per child and whether programs meet a range of quality benchmarks — the report shows that average funding held steady at just over $5,000 per child, but the authors note that funding has not kept pace with inflation. Just over a third of all 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded programs, and 10 states now enroll more than half of their 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K. In 2002, only three states and the District of Columbia enrolled at least a third of 4-year-olds.
Published annually since 2003, the “yearbook” has charted the growth of state-funded pre-K programs across the country — from 38 states serving approximately 700,000 3- and 4-year-olds during the 2001-02 school year to now over 1.5 million preschoolers enrolled in public programs in 43 states, plus Guam and the District of Columbia. Some states have more than one type of publicly funded program profiled in the report.
The 2015 yearbook showed that after sharp declines in funding for pre-K during the recession, average spending per child began to increase again, rising from $4,202 in 2014 to $4,521 in 2015. Last year’s report showed continued increases in spending to just over $5,000 per child, as well as increases in enrollment — 32% of all 4-year-olds and 5% 3-year-olds. Most states don’t serve any 3-year-olds in public programs unless they have disabilities.
Special focus on dual language learners
For the second time, NIEER highlighted states’ policies related to dual language learners (DLLs), who represent 23% of all preschoolers. “Not much has changed” since the researchers surveyed states on the issue in the 2014-15 school year, Barnett said.
Currently, six of the 60 programs covered by the report require lead teachers to have any special training in educating children whose home language is not English, but these six don’t include states with large enrollments of DLLs, such as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and New York. The report also notes that most states don’t know how many DLLs they have in public preschool or what language they speak at home.
“The preschool years are a critical time for language development,” Barnett said, adding that DLLs have the “double task” of learning two languages. He added that while they are at a greater risk of not being successful in school, DLLs are also more likely to benefit from attending preschool than any other subgroup, as researchers following Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program have shown.
Indicators of quality
The 2016 report, was also the first to include an updated set of quality benchmarks — shifting away from the “structural aspects” of pre-K, such as whether programs provide a meal, to a focus on “policies that more directly support continuous improvement of classroom quality,” according to that year’s report.
For example, one of the earlier quality indicators was whether teachers participated in at least 15 hours of professional development (PD) per year. Now the benchmark is for all teachers and teaching assistants to participate in at least 15 hours of PD, have individual PD plans, and have access to coaching. In another example, a previous benchmark was having comprehensive early learning and development standards. Now the standards should be “comprehensive, aligned, supported and culturally sensitive.”
“I think the updated benchmarks are a notable improvement in the NIEER yearbook quality metrics,” said Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. In 2008, Pianta co-authored a study suggesting that traditional measures of quality such as teachers’ level of education and teacher-to-child ratios were not associated with positive outcomes in children’s learning and social development. Barnett responded at the time that those benchmarks were meant to be a “floor” for states as they built their programs.
Pianta added that even though the data for the yearbook are collected through an online survey of state preschool administrators and not directly observed, “the new standards focus much more on the actual educational and developmental experiences offered by classrooms and experienced by children.”
NIEER researchers also note in the yearbook that the benchmarks focus on state policy “rather than actual practice.” Some states with high program standards may have classrooms that don’t meet those standards, while other states with lower standards may have centers that go well beyond what is required.
This year, state-funded preschool programs in three states — Alabama, Michigan and Rhode Island — met all 10 updated benchmarks, and 15 programs met nine of the original benchmarks.
States to watch
In addition to focusing on quality, Alabama has also continued to increase enrollment in its First Class Pre-K program with the help of a federal Preschool Development Grant (PDG). In 2017, the state served 14,000 preschoolers and Gov. Kay Ivey approved an $18.5 million expansion of the program, which would pay for another 100 classrooms. The expansion would boost enrollment by 1,800 more 4-year-olds and bring the total number of classrooms across the state to 1,041.
Jeana Ross, secretary of Alabama’s Department of Early Childhood Education, said officials are now determining where to add classrooms by looking at criteria like poverty, sites with wait lists, and sites that feed into schools that “need to do some work” to improve. Then to ensure quality, her department visits each school or other community-based site that wants to receive a grant to offer the program.
“We want to make sure they understand what a high-quality pre-k program looks like because that’s what we expect,” she said, adding that the state’s monitoring and coaching system involves those who “live in the community, know the community and understand the community.”
Alabama was also listed as one of six “states to watch” in this year’s report because it “demonstrates what can be accomplished when leadership maintains high-quality preschool as a priority over the long run,” the report says.
The other five states — West Virginia, Wisconsin, Vermont, Illinois and New York — were all chosen because leaders have indicated plans to provide universal access to preschool. Barnett noted, however, that they are all approaching that goal in different ways, and that issues such as whether preschool teachers will be paid on the same scale as K-12 teachers are often left up to local discretion.
The federal role
While Alabama officials says they plan to sustain the federal grant funding they’ve received, the report notes that the PDG program has an “uncertain future.”
“The federal government has a critical role,” Mark Shriver, CEO of the Save the Children Action Network and Save the Children's senior vice president of U.S. Programs and Advocacy, said in the press call, adding that early-childhood has largely had bipartisan support through the years.
School districts have long been able to use Title I funding for preschool programs, but Carey Wright, the state superintendent of education for Mississippi, said that the new Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more flexibility than ever to use early-childhood education as a lever to increase student performance. Mississippi only began offering public pre-K in 2014 with about 1,780 children. She added that her department has issued guidance documents to districts on how they can use federal funds for early-childhood programs.
“This has drastically expanded our reach,” she said.