Governing magazine: State and local government news for America's leaders

State Pre-K Funding Hits Historic Low as Obama Pushes Universal Plan

As Obama pushes for universal preschool, a new report shows that states endured a historic drop in pre-K funding last year, and enrollment stagnated for the first time in years.
by | April 29, 2013
Enrollment in state-funded preschool programs stalled in 2012 for the first time in years. (Photo: AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

President Barack Obama’s bid for universal preschool couldn’t have come at a better time. According to a new report, state pre-K programs endured the largest collective funding cut in their history last year, and enrollment stalled for the first time in years.

Total state pre-K funding fell nearly $550 million from 2011 to 2012, reports an analysis released Monday by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The national total spent was $5.1 billion.

The bad news was widespread, but there are still significant disparities across states, which the president’s plan would aim to reduce. Florida (with 79 percent of four-year-olds enrolled in state-funded) and Oklahoma (74 percent) continue to lead the pack in participation by a significant margin. Vermont comes in third with 65 percent of children enrolled in state-funded pre-K.

Only nine states enroll more than 50 percent of their four-year-olds in state-based preschool, while 19 states enroll less than 20 percent. Rhode Island (0.9 percent) and Minnesota (1.4 percent) rank at the bottom. The figures suggest that most states have significant work to do to achieve universal enrollment, as Obama has proposed.

Collectively, 28 percent of four-year-olds and 4 percent of three-year-olds (1.3 million altogether) attended a state-funded early education program last year -- the same as the year before. That number had been steadily rising since 2002, when 14 percent of four-year-olds and 3 percent of three-year-olds were enrolled.

National per-pupil funding hit its lowest point in a decade ($3,841) -- down from a high of $5,020 in 2002. More than half of states cut their per-pupil spending, but there was again movement in dramatically different directions across states. California, Connecticut and Rhode Island cut their per-student funding by more than $1,000. But Arizona and Alaska significantly increased their investments in early education in 2012.

The president’s plan, introduced in his State of the Union address and outlined in his FY 2014 budget, would theoretically help to even the playing field across states. He's set the goal of enrolling every four-year-old in the country into a pre-K program in the coming years.

"Let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind," the president told Congress in February. "Let’s give our kids that chance."

The White House wants to pump $75 billion in federal matching funds into state pre-K programs over the next decade, using the money to enroll low-income children into programs and incentivizing states to expand access to middle-income families. The program would be fully funded by an increase in the federal cigarette tax from $1.01 to $1.95.

With states also contributing a growing share of the funding in later years, the plan would represent a huge increase in public funding of early education from the $5.1 billion that states spent last year. The administration envisions a gradual rollout of the initiative. Fifteen states are expected to participate during the first year, with every state joining by the third year.

Pre-K advocates, including NIEER, praised the president for his proposal. As Governing has reported, investments in early education slowed significantly during the economic downturn, and advocates hope Obama’s initiative could reverse that trend -- if it earns approval from Congress.

“There was already a lot going on in the states. The finances were always the problem, and the recession just doubled down on the problem,” Steven Barnett, NIEER’s director, told Governing at the time. “They just got stuck. But I think we will see a dramatic growth pretty quickly because these states were poised to do it. Now the federal government has put its thumb on the scale.”

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