Correction: A previous version of this article was missing Oklahoma from the list of states meeting 9 of the 10 quality standards benchmarks.
For the first time, overall spending on public pre-K programs across 44 states, the District of Columbia and Guam tops $8 billion, and 16 states increased per-child funding last year.
But a sizable number of states — 18 — have used a soon-to-expire federal grant program to expand or improve those programs, and not all have plans for how they’ll sustain those efforts, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) annual State of Preschool "yearbook," released Wednesday.
“It remains to be seen how the loss of federal [Preschool Development Grant] funding will affect access to high-quality preschool for children in low-income families,” write the authors of the report, which ranks states annually on pre-K enrollment, quality and resources. Per-child funding also dropped in more than half of states between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, as well as the average amount spent per-child nationally.
Close to 1.6 million 3- and 4-year-olds attended state-funded pre-K programs in the 2017-18 year, with 85% of those children being 4-year-olds. This year’s report also includes two states — Montana and North Dakota — that operated pre-K programs for the first time last year. Overall, however, there has been little growth in enrollment — half of a percentage point for 3-year-olds and less than a percentage point for 4-year-olds. “Some states are moving in the right direction, but many are standing still," W. Steven Barnett, the senior co-director of NIEER, said in a statement.
Preschool enrollment also varies widely across the country. The District of Columbia serves more than 73% of 3-year-olds and 85% of 4-year-olds, and Florida, Vermont and Oklahoma enroll more than 70% of 4-year-olds. But 11 states, including Minnesota, Delaware and Arizona, enroll less than 10% of eligible 4-year-olds.
Two states improve quality
Programs in three states — Alabama, Michigan and Rhode Island — meet all 10 of NIEER’s quality benchmarks, which include structural aspects, such as ratios, class sizes and teacher qualifications, as well as process quality, including professional development and having a continuous improvement system.
In addition, six other programs — Louisiana’s Nonpublic School Early Childhood Development program, and those in Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and West Virginia — met nine of the 10 quality indicators. But since last year, just two states have adopted policies that allowed them to reach additional benchmarks. Tennessee, for example, revised and approved its early learning and development standards and increased professional development (PD) hours.
These changes are largely in response to findings last year showing that children who didn’t attend the program were actually performing better on state tests by 3rd grade than those who did. Connecticut’s Child Day Care Contracts program — one of three public early-childhood education programs in that state — also made quality improvements and met the standards benchmark.
In a NIEER report issued last fall, Alabama’s First Class Pre-K was also the only program found to have most — 14 — of the 15 “essential elements” of a high-quality state preschool program.
“We’ve only improved,” Jeana Ross, secretary of the state’s Department of Early Childhood Education, said in an interview.
Recent research also shows that Alabama is seeing lasting gains from its pre-K policies. The latest results from an evaluation conducted by researchers at the University of Alabama finds children who have attended First Class Pre-K — who are more likely to be black and from low-income families — have higher proficiency scores in reading (1.6%) and math (3.2%) through 7th grade on the ACT Aspire Assessment System than those who didn’t attend the program. “This means that the observed differences in performance of First Class Pre-K students did not change over time and that the positive benefits persist as children age and progress to later grades,” the authors write.
Ross attributes the results in part to the fact that pre-K teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree and to be paid on the same salary schedule as teachers in K-12 — which is clearly not the norm, according to a special section of this year’s NIEER report. The state also runs a year-long academy for elementary principals, using resources developed by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
“We’re going to take those most successful components of pre-k that make the children successful and scale up,” Ross said. A cohort of 105 principals or other administrators are now in the program. Because it’s voluntary, Ross described it as “scattering mustard seeds into very fertile places.”
Differences in workforce policies
Focusing on the workforce, this year’s NIEER report highlights that most states don’t pay pre-K teachers the way they pay K-3 teachers — even if they are required to have the same education and teaching credentials. Those states that include school-based pre-K teachers in their salary schedules often don’t include teachers working in private, community-based programs — a pay disparity issue that has been playing out in New York City recently.
Teachers in community-based programs there argue they haven’t been receiving the same pay as those in school-based public pre-K programs. On April 10, however, the New York City Council released a response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s budget proposal, calling for $89 million to bring parity between school-based and community-based teachers. In a press release, Campaign for Children, an advocacy organization representing a variety of early-childhood programs across the city, called the plan “a first step to achieving full salary parity for the early-childhood workforce in community-based organizations.”
While most states do have specific PD requirements for pre-K teachers, only 18 require them to be paid the same for PD time as K-3 teachers, and only nine extend these policies to teachers in private settings. NIEER describes these differences as “a gulf that only becomes larger when comparing state-funded preschool teachers in public schools with those in private providers.”
The focus in this year’s report on the early-childhood education workforce also comes as several states are considering legislation that would create incentives for educators to work with young children. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least nine states have seen bills during this legislative season that aim to attract educators into the field.
These proposals include tax incentives, such as the Early Childhood Education Workforce Quality Incentive Act in Arkansas, which would create a $1,000 tax credit, and a $2,000 tax credit in Massachusetts. Other models focus on making it easier for those already working in early-childhood or considering the field to earn more education. Bills in both the Illinois House and Senate would create the Early Childhood Workforce Free College grant program for child-care providers pursuing a two- or four-year degree. And other states are considering loan forgiveness and scholarship programs.
But Barnett wrote in an email that on their own, incentives have little to no impact on whether early educators stay in the field. Especially when pre-K teachers have bachelor’s degrees and are certified to teach, they often move on to jobs in the elementary grades where they can earn more money — which contributes to high turnover rates in early-childhood programs.
“Unless we get compensation, supports for continuing development and working conditions right, this won't change,” Barnett wrote, adding that to keep teachers in preschool, higher qualifications, financial support and help navigating the higher education and certification systems would be “an important set of policies.”
Marcy Whitebook, co-director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, added that stipends and tax credits can offer “poverty relief, but only changes in ongoing salaries will make [early-childhood education] a field that attracts and retains teachers.”
She added, however that across the early-childhood field, state-funded pre-K programs have made the “most headway” toward addressing teacher compensation and qualifications. Other “bright-ish” spots, she said, include the increases some child care providers are seeing because of minimum wage hikes.
More groups monitoring early learning efforts
While NIEER has been publishing its yearbook since 2003, other organizations are also beginning to grade states on their early-childhood education efforts. Last week, for example, the National Urban League (NUL) released its Standards of Equity and Excellence report, which includes “equitable access to early-childhood learning” as one of 12 indicators of whether states are addressing equity as part of their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
They rated 23 states’ plans as excellent, calling out examples such as Illinois’ plans to create a P-2 indicator in its accountability system, as well as California’s work to use Title I federal funds for evaluating and improving the state’s transitional kindergarten program and Title II funds for early educator PD. They rated the Florida and Rhode Island plans as poor, however, because they don’t come right out and say how they will use Title I or Title II to support early learning. Texas was also included in the poor group because its ESSA plan doesn’t allow flexibility to use Title I funds for early-childhood programs.
NUL recommended that advocates monitoring ESSA implementation encourage states to direct more funding to early-childhood and include early-childhood teachers in Title II-funded PD.