States spent $8.7 billion on preschool last school year — a 3.5% increase over the previous year — but publicly funded early-childhood education programs are at risk of experiencing “long-term damage” due to the pandemic’s effect on the economy, according to leaders of the National Institute for Early Education Research.
“The current and looming economic crisis poses a considerable threat to state-funded pre-K," W. Steven Barnett, NIEER’s senior co-director and founder, said Monday during a press call. "It needs to grow and improve, not just hold on."
With the release of the Rutgers University-based center’s annual State of Preschool Yearbook, Barnett provided a reminder of how the Great Recession left a “deep and long-lasting” impact on state pre-K programs. After sharp declines in per-child spending, it took states until 2015 to begin increasing funding, and some still spend less than they did before the last recession or haven't reversed increases to class sizes, for example.
In fact, during a webinar last week, Marguerite Roza, a research associate professor and director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, said when states make “hurried” cuts to education budgets in response to declining revenues, they often trim around the perimeter. They begin with recently added initiatives and programs outside of the K-12 funding formula — both of which could include early-childhood education.
"We were doing so well before all this happened," said Jeana Ross, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, which has increased the number of First Class Pre-K classrooms from 217 to over 1,200 since 2012-13. "We want resilient children. Hopefully we have a resilient early-childhood education system."
In Georgia, which has one of the country’s longest-running state pre-K programs, Reg Griffin, chief communications officer for the Department of Early Care and Learning, said it’s too soon to tell whether the economic downtown would have any impact on lottery revenues, which are used to fund pre-K. “We will be monitoring closely in order to identify any potential impacts,” Griffin added.
Barnett noted even with the country entering a recession, however, he’s encouraged preschool has been a bipartisan issue, and states that lean in opposite directions politically “share a commitment to high-quality preschool education.”
He also called for new federal funding to support state preschool programs, and Ross noted while federal stimulus funds include money for K-12 and child care, programs for 4-year-olds got "lost in the middle."
Center closures could impact pre-K
A more pressing concern for many families is when their children will be able to return to center-based learning. While schools will reopen, a large segment of state-funded pre-K classrooms are based in child care centers, many of which have been financially devastated by the pandemic.
Updated survey data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows that of 5,000 providers responding, half said their centers are now closed.
“It places educators and families in an untenable situation, and will dramatically affect the U.S.’ ability to return to normal when current restrictions lift,” according to NAEYC. “Parents who would otherwise re-enter the workforce may struggle to find adequate care for their children if providers are unable to reopen.”
Barnett said the impact of center closures on state pre-K largely depends on how states fund those programs. If they fund entire classrooms, those will be more secure for the time being. But in states such as North Carolina that fund pre-K on a per-child basis, those slots could disappear if the centers aren't able to operate.
Ross Hunter, secretary of the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families — which oversees the long-running Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program — said he doesn't know how ongoing social-distancing restrictions around group size could impact preschool and the existing workforce. "You can’t just walk in off the street and be an effective pre-K teacher," he said.
Even though some early-childhood programs are working to maintain learning routines for preschoolers through video chats, Barnett also questioned the value of online preschool programs. What engages young children, he said, is "an adult. It’s not an adult on a screen."
His comments, however, come at a time when Upstart, a program of Waterford, is continuing to expand its kindergarten readiness program to 20 states by this fall. With funding from the Utah legislature and other donors, the program offers scholarships to children in low-income families.
Claudia Miner, executive director of the program, said Upstart is a "holistic" program that provides families with "offline activities" as well as the online component and is meant to fill gaps for students not served in site-based pre-K and Head Start. She added the pandemic is an opportunity for collaboration between the program and state-level officials.
Barnett said Upstart can work as an add-on to a state-funded preschool program, but there are "better technology options ... that are far less expensive."
"You can’t just walk in off the street and be an effective pre-K teacher."
Secretary, Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families
Average per-child spending remains flat
Ranking states in three categories — access to state preschool, average spending per child and whether programs meet a range of quality benchmarks — the annual yearbook shows that, in total, combined federal, state and local funding on preschool exceeded $10 billion for the first time.
- Resources: Adjusting for inflation, 10 states increased funding over the 2017-18 year by at least $10 million. While average per-child spending remained relatively flat — at $5,378 — per-child spending did increase in 18 states, just not by as much in previous years.
States also used $222 million in federal Preschool Development Grants to serve more than 23,000 4-year-olds. Past NIEER reports have suggested it’s important for states to have a plan for how to maintain enrollment levels once federal funds dry up. Additional PDG Birth-5 grants, announced in December, are not intended to support enrollment expansion.
Barnett added the funds could be used to plan for summer transition programs for preschoolers entering kindergarten and for ongoing virtual classrooms, if needed. "Remote learning for preschoolers is the toughest piece of this for states to figure out," he said.
Spending on state preschool is discretionary and generally outside of the K-12 funding formula, which, as Roza noted, is one reason why funding was slashed during the last recession. One development noted in this year’s NIEER report is the addition of a second preschool program in Missouri that allows school districts to use the K-12 formula for early-childhood programs. Wisconsin has long included 4-year-olds in the state education funding formula.
- Enrollment: Focusing on programs in 44 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, the report shows more than 1.6 million children — the vast majority of them 4-year-olds — are enrolled in public preschool programs. Compared to the previous year, enrollment of 4-year-olds increased by 3%, while the increase in enrollment of 3-year-olds is smaller than in 2017-18.
Overall public preschool enrollment increased in 13 states and decreased in 12 states. Barnett noted that because of increases in unemployment, demand for pre-K will likely increase because more children will become eligible for programs targeted to low-income families.
NIEER’s statement on this year’s report also notes even when the economy is strong, other industrialized nations are well ahead of the U.S. in financing early learning programs. “At the current pace, it will be centuries before the U.S. reaches preschool attendance levels of other high- income nations,” the NIEER statement said.
- Quality: Four states — Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi and Rhode Island — meet all 10 of NIEER’s minimum quality standards benchmarks, while 10 states meet fewer than five benchmarks. The report notes almost 40% of preschoolers in state-funded programs attend those meeting five or fewer of the standards, with many of them in California, Florida and Texas.
The authors note, however, Delaware, Mississippi and the Missouri Preschool Program met the professional development benchmark for the first time, and Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia met the standard for having a continuous quality improvement system.
- Administration: With early-childhood education governance being a recurring legislative issue in recent years, this year’s report also includes the results of a survey of state-level administrators. The majority — 51 of the programs covered by the report — are part of a state education agency, while 12 are part of an early-childhood education agency, and six are part of a human services agency.
About a third of administrators are also part of the same state agency responsible for child care, and half are in the same agency overseeing their state’s Head Start program.
The survey also looks at the number of staff positions assigned to programs, with the results showing those meeting more quality standards tend to have more state-level staff members. Local- and regional-level agencies within the K-12 system also play a larger role in overseeing state preschool when the program is financed through the state education funding formula.
The majority of programs, at least 80%, have state-level staff members with expertise in child development, curriculum and PD, assessment, social-emotional development, approaches to learning, English language arts and data analysis. Closer to three-fourths have staff members with expertise in preschool inclusion or special education, social studies, math, science, policy analysis and finance. And half of the programs have someone with expertise in bilingual education.
“This is particularly concerning,” the authors wrote, “considering that many of our state programs directly or indirectly target children who are English language learners.”