Researcher highlights troubling preschool spending trends

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Troubling. That's the only way to describe the trajectory of public support for early learning in the United States—a fact made painfully clear at a TEACH mini-plenary on national trends in preschool funding and accessibility.

States are cutting back on their public pre-K programs, even though enrollment for 4-year-olds has soared for more than a decade, early childhood expert W. Steven Barnett told the audience. Barnett is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University and author of NIEER's report "State of Preschool 2012," which recently made headlines around the nation by detailing how the Great Recession has taken a toll on early learning.

Among the report's findings:

  • Adjusting for inflation, states' per-child expenditure for preschool fell by more than $1,100 over the past decade.
  • Variability across the states is extreme. Ten states do not fund pre-K; among those that do, enrollment, standards and funding are all over the map.
  • English language learners and Hispanic children, populations who benefit greatly from good preschool education, tend to be poorly served by state pre-K.

"Much of the news is not good," said Barnett. "Most of the preschool programs are too weak to support what we want without increased public support."

Without federal action, this inequality between states is likely to persist, Barnett told the audience at the session, which highlighted the need for lawmakers to act on President Obama's landmark call for increased federal investments in early learning. Barnett called it one of the best investments the nation can make in tackling some of the most stubborn problems in education, such as the "achievement gap" between different groups of students.

"More optimally designed preschool programs can, by themselves, close about half of the achievement gap—that's a big deal," said the Rutgers researcher. He used much of his time at the session to dispel some of the persistent myths surrounding early childhood education—among them, the view that the benefits of early learning fade quickly after preschool. In fact, several studies show school benefits from preschool education—academic development as well as behavior and conduct—can carry over into the first years of school and into adulthood.

The bottom line is that good programs make a big difference, Barnett told the crowd at TEACH. "That's not a shock to many educators, but it does sometimes come as a shock to some politicians."

[Mike Rose]