- The pandemic eliminated a decade of enrollment progress in state-funded preschool programs with a 5.5% enrollment loss — of 229,384 4 year olds — between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, according to The State of Preschool Report 2021, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research and Rutgers Graduate School of Education.
- Additionally, state spending on pre-K programs fell in 2020-21 for the first time since 2014. Nearly $9 billion was spent on pre-K programs, an inflation-adjusted decrease of $254 million from the 2019-20 school year. But federal relief funding helped make up for the deficit, and some states even used emergency money to grow spending levels over the year before.
- The 184-page report offers solutions to boost enrollment and funding, including small federal matching grants and state-led initiatives to expand quality preschool programs, particularly for children in low-income families and from underserved ethnic and racial groups.
A decades-long push to create capacity for universal access to preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds was stunted by the pandemic, but the impact may have been much worse without federal rescue funds, according to speakers on a virtual press call Monday.
State spending declined by an inflation-adjusted 3% in 2020-21 compared to the prior year. Yet when $440 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds is factored in, spending actually increased by $186 million. If all sources of spending — local, state and federal — are considered, state-funded preschool programs saw a 2.7% inflation-adjusted increase compared to 2019-20.
Average state pre-K spending per child enrolled in 2020-21
The additional dollars helped states preserve program capacity in preparation for enrollments to rebound. Nine states enjoyed substantial increases in spending, topped by an $84 million increase in Maryland and a $78 million increase in New Jersey, said Allison Friedman-Krauss, assistant research professor at NIEER. Twenty-six states, however, suffered inflation-adjusted decreases in state preschool spending.
State-funded preschool programs are funded, controlled and directed by a state and typically serve 3- and 4-year-olds, according to the report.
The pandemic had a particularly negative impact on early childhood special education, which saw a 16% decrease in enrollment, and on Head Start, which had an enrollment decrease of 33%.
Pre-K enrollment fell in 2021 for first time in 20 years
In addition to addressing funding and enrollment, the report raised concerns about the quality of pre-K programs. Only 11% of children attending state-funded pre-K programs are in programs that meet nine or all 10 of NIEER's quality standard benchmarks. On the other hand, almost 40% of children in state funded pre-K are in programs meeting fewer than half of the benchmarks.
"We know that things aren't where they should be," said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Katie Walden, a mother of three from Garner, North Carolina, said she had to close the business she opened in 2020 and stay home to care for her youngest child because there were no high quality, affordable preschool options readily available in her community. The early childhood programs that were available either had months-long waitlists, were too expensive or seemed understaffed, she said.
"There were zero options for us. Zero options for a family living right outside our state's capital" of Raleigh, Walden said.
Other insights revealed in the annual report include:
- Six states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and Washington — saw preschool enrollment increase in 2020-21.
- Washington, D.C., and six states — Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin — served more than 50% of their 4-year-old populations. D.C. had the highest enrollment rate for 4 year olds, at 84%, and it was the only one to enroll more than 50% of 3 year olds. D.C. also spends the most at $19,228 per child.
- Six states — Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming — fund no pre-K program.