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April 29, 2019

Report Points to Stalled Progress in Pre-K Access and Funding

Just one-third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-k programs nationwide.

That number has not changed in years, according to the recent National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) State of Preschool 2018 annual report. It tracks state-funded preschool access and quality.

Overall, preschool enrollment grew until the Great Recession. But since 2008, those increases have shrunk. Average state spending per child in 2017-18 was $5,172 — a decrease following a downward trend.

The report also suggests that early education programs would prove more beneficial if more children had access and quality improved.

“A good pre-k program can lay a stronger foundation, whether that’s in academia or social-emotional development. It teaches how to think before you act and how to regulate emotions. It even helps with physical activity to address the obesity problem we have in the U.S.,” said Dr. W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of NIEER at Rutgers University.

The report highlighted what “good” programs look like, and while Florida was among the nation’s top states for the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-k, its quality ranks among the lowest, reaching just two NIEER quality benchmarks out of 10.

READ MORE: The confounding state of child care in Florida

That may be part of why most of Florida’s fourth-grade students aren’t proficient readers.

The benchmarks include staff-child ratio, teacher educational attainment, and child access to health screenings and referrals.

One of the benchmarks of Florida’s pre-k program misses on is teacher educational attainment.

“Research concludes it’s not possible on a large scale for teachers to have the necessary knowledge about early child development without a college degree,” Barnett said. “But if the compensation isn’t realistic, you can’t retain them or blame them.”

“As of now, they’re one disaster away from poverty, and you can’t have good teachers constantly stressed by poor pay,” he added.

Only four states require all preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification, while also requiring salary parity between preschool and K–3 teachers.

The gaps are similar in per child spending that ranges from $17,545 in the District of Columbia to $777 per child in North Dakota. Six other states, including Florida, spend less than $3,000 per child.

But progress may be hampered by the imminent end of federal Preschool Development Grants (PDG) this year.

Eight states reported plans to sustain the PDG-level of funding and enrollment using other means, and another nine reported they were working on a plan. Barnett doesn’t expect the fund to be reinstated.

“The PDG in the big picture is a small piece of state-funded pre-k. But I think it means the growth in next year’s spending is likely to be even flatter than it has been. It’s one more thing moving in the wrong direction for early-education programs.”

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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