State Spending on Preschool Hits 10-Year Low

It looks like the Obama Administration's new early education plan -- which would be funded by a hike in the cigarette tax -- is even more sorely needed than advocates thought.

Jason Reed/Reuters

Even as President Obama launches a massive push to expand preschool opportunities for young children, early childhood education advocates are expressing dismay over a new report that access and per-pupil spending have hit 10-year lows.

The president's plan would expand opportunities for families that don't have the means to pay for private preschool programs but also earn too much to qualify for existing state programs aimed at children in poverty. Advocates contend that early education is an essential component to leveling the playing field for at-risk children, and to the nation's long-term economic well-being.

Here are a few of the sure-to-be-sound-bite statistics in the State of Preschool 2012 Yearbook, compiled by the National Institute for Early Education Research, which went so far as to call it a "state of emergency":

  • Among the 40 states that offer pre-K programs, funding dropped by more than $548 million -- the largest one-year decline in a decade.
  • Only 15 states and the District of Columbia provide enough funding for programs to meet all 10 of the institute's quality benchmarks.
  • For the first time since the yearbook began in 2002, preschool enrollment nationally didn't increase enough to keep pace with population growth, a result of states not having enough seats to meet the need.

W. Steven Barnett, director of the institute, said in a call with reporters that the discouraging data reflects a decade-long slide when it comes to the nation's investment in its youngest learners. States' contributions -- supplemented by federal dollars and additional local sources -- totaled $5.1 billion over 39 states and the District of Columbia. Ten states provided no funding for early learning.

Barnett said it's important to note that the steep drop in state spending on early childhood education programs was exacerbated by the fact that at least $127 million in federal stimulus dollars that had been used in the prior year were no longer there. But the recession is not to blame, Barnett said, pointing out that funding has been on a steady downward slide for a decade.

Equally troubling to NIEER is that students are losing out on multiple fronts -- capacity has been cut in many states to save money, and the kids who do get a spot are often in more crowded classrooms with fewer resources. There is also less monitoring of individual programs through accountability measures such as site visits.

As the Los Angeles Times reported in February, the president's preschool plan is structured with Republicans in mind, particularly those who question the efficacy and management of the federal Head Start program. Rather than a wholesale expansion of Head Start, the new federal initiative would give states matching funds for preschool while allowing them to retain control over how programs were structured, provided certain "high quality" standards were met.

The president's plan would rely on a sharp hike in the federal cigarette tax, and that proposal is expected to meet stiff resistance by tobacco industry lobbyists. I asked Barnett where he would like to see states focus their efforts - albeit on a smaller budget -- if the new tax revenue doesn't come through. The first thing would be to "bring back the state capacity to monitor and support programs in continuous improvement," Barnett said, a necessary step to ensuring high-quality opportunities.

"States need to right the balance in terms of the trade-offs they make between enrollment and providing enough money to really make the preschool experience meaningful," Barnett said.

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.