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(Photograph courtesy of Pre-K Now)

Early education programs are struggling to serve all the children who qualify for them, as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression has caused states to slash budgets and reduce spending, according to an annual survey of state-funded programs by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Expansion in 2009 was slower and more uneven than in previous years, even though total enrollment and spending increased overall, NIEER found. As more parents rely on publicly funded preschool because their incomes have fallen, enrollment declined in nine states, while other states limited enrollment. Twelve states, including Idaho and New Hampshire, still provide no state-funded preschool at all.

“Last year we saw continued rapid progress but threats of cuts,” said W. Steven Barnett, co-director of NIEER in New Brunswick, N.J. “This year [2008-09] we saw the pace of growth in enrollment slow and real spending per child decrease after two years of increases.”

The NIEER survey ranks all states for the 2008-09 school year on enrollment in state-funded preschool programs, along with the amount states spend per child and how they meet the institute’s quality benchmarks. Oklahoma is on top, based on enrollment, quality standards, funding and the effectiveness of its program, followed by Arkansas, West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Louisiana and Tennessee.

NIEER uncovered instances of large budget cuts and even the elimination of several programs, underscoring the difficulty of keeping early childhood education at the top of policymakers’ agendas in tough economic times. More than 1.2 million children attend state-funded pre-kindergarten.

“As family incomes fall, more children become eligible for and in need of state preschool programs,” Barnett said. “Yet, in the face of rising demand, state pre-K budgets are being squeezed, making it nearly impossible for them to meet the need.”

The findings follow two years in which states saw large boosts in enrollment and more than doubled their spending on preschool to $4.6 billion in 2008. The increases stalled during the recession; state funding rose only to $5 billion in 2009.

The average amount states spent, when adjusted for inflation, declined $36 per child between 2008 and 2009 to $4,143. Spending per child declined in 24 of the 38 states with programs, the survey found.

“Given all we know about the importance of early childhood, it’s disheartening to see any cuts whatsoever,” said Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University.

While it’s no surprise that the global economic crisis has derailed U.S. gains in pre-school expansion, the trends are made more worrisome because states are continuing to scale back long-planned pre-kindergarten expansions or debating further cuts, said Barnett. In addition, one out of seven children has an unemployed parent, meaning more families now qualify for programs whose eligibility is determined by income, he said.

“Even a state that is flat [in its spending] or has a small increase may not be keeping pace,” Barnett said.

The findings come as hope for a new federal investment in early childhood education suffered a setback. Money for President Barack Obama’s proposed Early Learning Challenge Fund did not come through in the historic remaking of the health-care system and an overhaul of the student loan program in March. The fund would have provided competitive grants to help states both create and improve the quality of services for at-risk children from birth to age 5.

Marci Young, a project director with the Pew Center on the States, said she hopes that Congress will add funds and incentives in the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA) to build on state investments in pre-kindergarten. “As findings in the NIEER Yearbook underscore, state-funded pre-kindergarten programs are facing increased challenges,” Young said.

Barbara Bowman, who has served as a consultant to U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan, said the NIEER report underscored the difficulty of getting more resources behind early childhood education on a state level.

“We can’t improve schools and outcomes for children without high quality early childhood education,” Bowman said. “But so many states are in hazardous financial shape they can’t do anything for early childhood right now.”

Bowman said she is convinced that neither Obama nor Duncan have given up hope that challenge grants will be funded and that they remain committed to a vision of more expansive funding for early childhood initiatives.

“It’s worrisome that it has taken so long,’’ she said. “No one expected this financial mess we are in. We were hoping we could do both health care and early childhood, but we understand the political realities. There will be some hard times before this is straightened out, but if we don’t take care of the early childhood component, children will start out at a disadvantage.”

The survey also found:
• Twenty-three of 38 states with state-funded preschool failed to meet NIEER benchmarks for teacher qualifications, and 26 failed to meet the benchmark for assistant teacher qualifications.
• Six states have programs that meet fewer than half of the benchmarks for quality standards. States failing to meet most benchmarks include California, Texas and Florida, three of the four states with the largest number of children enrolled.
• Oklahoma is the only state that offers a quality preschool education to every child by age 4.
• Illinois, Vermont and New Jersey lead the nation in serving children at age 3.

This story originally appeared on the Education Week website on May 4, 2010.

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