State pre-k funding stalled for a second consecutive year, according to a new report released Tuesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR), dropping by $60 million. Those cuts, combined with an increase in enrollment, have raised questions about the future of state-funded early education programs.

Per-child funding declined in 26 of the 39 states that fund pre-k programs, and average per-student spending fell $145 to $4,151. Widespread disparity exists across states: New Jersey spends the most at $11,669 per child, while South Carolina ranks at the bottom with $1,342 per student.

Access also varies significantly and depends heavily on state policies: 76 percent of Florida four-year-olds are enrolled in a state pre-k program, as that state has set a goal for universal enrollment, while 10 states have less than 10 percent of their 4-year-olds in a state-funded program.

Meanwhile, overall enrollment in state early education increased by nearly 31,000 children last year; 22 states accounted for the increase. Nationwide, 28 percent of 4-year-olds (1.1 million) and 4.3 percent of 3-year-olds (175,500) attended a state-funded pre-k program.

That enrollment increase, paired with per-child funding cuts, leaves concerns about quality. According to NIERR, only 12 states provide enough funding per student to meet 10 benchmarks for quality (such as comprehensive learning standards, qualified instructors and class sizes below 20 children) as outlined by the institute. Based on the institute's parameters, 43 percent of pre-k students attend a program that meets less than half of the 10 quality benchmarks.

“Parents would be outraged if we had such low expectations for the first grade or kindergarten,” said NIERR president W. Steven Barnett in a statement. “As economic conditions improve, states need to provide more adequate funding, step up quality, and make pre-k available to all children.”

Steffanie Clothier, early education policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Governing that pre-k programs had largely fared better than other state programs during the economic downturn. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states have been forced to close a combined $530 billion in shortfalls because of lost revenue since the start of the recession.

NIERR noted in its report that the recession marked "the first serious reversals" for pre-k funding. Early education has faced $90 million in cuts over the last two years, according to the institute. Overall state spending on pre-k is nearly $5.5 billion.

With those numbers in mind, Clothier said a concerted effort took place to save pre-k programs from bearing the brunt of those cuts. There is also hope that, as states continue to recover from the economic downturn, they will be able to reinvest in early education.

“The recession effectively interrupted the momentum states had with pre-k,” Clothier said. “Given the popularity of pre-k programs across the country, it’s a good bet a number of states will pick up where they left off.”

The benefits of pre-k education programs, especially for disadvantaged children, are well-documented. James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate and renowned researcher on the subject, sent a letter to Congress last year in the midst of the deficit reduction deliberations. He argued that for every $1 invested into early education, society could reap 7 to 10 percent per year in benefits.

The Obama administration initiated a Race To The Top: Early Learning Challenge last year, setting aside $500 million for which states can compete to fund their early education programs.

“Raising the quality of early learning and expanding access to effective programs plays a pivotal role in improving our children's chances at being successful in grade school through to college and careers,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement issued in response to the report. “It's the kind of investment that benefits us all.”

It is important to put these numbers in a historical perspective. NIEER has been producing its annual State of Preschool Yearbook for a decade now, and the institute used its 10th anniversary to reflect on some of the long-term trends in early education. The number of children participating in state pre-k programs has increased by 600,000 since 2001-2002; some of that is attributable to population trends, but by percentages, 4-year-old attendance jumped from 14 percent to 28 percent.

However, while attendance is improving, state per-student contributions have declined. According to NIERR, state per-child spending has dropped by $487 in the last 10 years (adjusted for start-up costs), even though overall spending has increased by $1.3 billion.

Pre-K Enrollment Map

The map below illustrates combined percent enrollment for three and four-year-olds. States shaded in white do not have state-funded pre-K programs.

Click a state to view its enrollment and spending figures, compiled by NIEER. To read notes associated with data for each state, refer to Tables 2 (p.14) and 6 (p.18) of the NIEER report.

Enrollment of three and 4-year-olds
No program < 10% 10 to < 20% 20 to < 30% More than 30%