Preschool Access Shouldn’t Depend on Where A Family Lives

Group of kids playing with toy bricks
We know that the early years of a child’s life are critical to their future success. To truly support young children, families must have access to a variety of early learning opportunities that meet parents’ and children’s unique and differing needs. One component of what parents and their children need is preschool. Preschool equips children to start kindergarten with key developmental and cognitive skills. Preschool is particularly important for children from low-income families, whose parents’ work schedules often make it much more difficult to have the time to read to or play with children, activities which are linked to children’s later success in school. However, too many families don’t have access to prekindergarten at all, because of a lack of programs in their area and the high costs of preschool. For many families, the preschool options that are available are not high-quality.
Despite the substantial need, this year’s annual State of Preschool report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) shows mixed progress in expanding and improving state-funded prekindergarten programs in the United States.
First, the positive news. During the 2014-2015 school year, total state funding for preschool programs increased by more than $553 million across 42 states and the District of Columbia, to a total of $6.2 billion (a 10% increase in real dollars). State preschool funding per child also increased from the previous year by $287/child. Six programs improved their quality standards, as measured against NIEER’s Quality Standards Benchmarks checklist, with six states plus one program in Louisiana now meeting all 10 benchmarks for state pre-K quality standards. Hawaii and Mississippi started offering state-funded preschool in 2014, and Indiana began two state-funded preschool pilot initiatives in 2014.
Despite these bright spots, progress was not shared across the board, as many states suffered setbacks. Overall numbers of children enrolled in state-funded preschool have hardly grown over the last several years due to funding cuts in some states offsetting gains in others. For example, during the 2014-2015 school year, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin each cut enrollment by more than 2,000 children.
Although there was an overall increase in funding this year, a closer look reveals that a large portion of this increase is due to the significant preschool expansion in New York as part of the state’s new program, the Statewide Universal Full-Day Prekindergarten Program. New York accounts for two-thirds of the increase in overall spending on state-funded preschool in 2014-2015, as well as about 40% of the increase in average per-child spending. The rapid expansion of preschool in New York shows that it is possible to quickly and broadly expand state-funded, high-quality preschool, but not without a large new investment of resources. To be able to add 13,000 new slots, New York allocated $358 million in increased funding and raised funding per child by 70 percent. There was also significant legwork to prepare for this big an expansion, such as recruiting 2,000 teachers and vetting hundreds of community providers as prekindergarten partners.
Even with progress in expanding preschool this past school year, it is critical to remember that preschool is just one piece of the early learning puzzle. For parents working in low-wage jobs, and for many working parents, preschool can leave gaps in care because many program hours are part day or don’t match up with non-traditional work schedules.  There is also a serious gap in the availability of high quality child care for infants and toddlers. In 2015, only 5% of 3-year-olds and 29% of 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool. We must simultaneously continue to urge lawmakers to increase funding for child care. The recently reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) contains many requirements that entail substantial new costs for states. Without increased funding, fewer families will likely receive child care assistance.
NIEER’s report makes clear that access to, and the quality of, state-funded preschool continues to vary far too much depending on a child’s zip code. Now is the time to tell policymakers loud and clear that every child, regardless of his or her state and regardless of his or her family’s income, deserves the same foundation for success during their early years.