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2019 State of Preschool Yearbook: Action Needed to Prevent Long-term Damage to Pre-K Amid COVID-19 Crisis

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has released the 2019 State of Preschool Yearbook, a survey on state-funded preschool programs that tracks student enrollment, resource allocation (including staffing and funding levels), and policies that support quality learning. In the midst of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, the Yearbook also provides information on where children are served, operating schedules, and other program features relevant to planning for the 2020-2021 school year and beyond.

Overall findings reveal that state investments in state-funded preschool continue to enjoy bipartisan support, though the supply of high-quality preschool experiences is still insufficient to meet the demand for children ages 3 and 4 across the United States.

“Since NIEER’s first survey in 2002, state-funded pre-K has changed markedly, though year-to-year change has been slow and uneven,” the report indicates.

While program quality has improved, the authors note that many states still do not meet all, or even most, of the quality benchmarks set forth by NIEER. If states wish to achieve optimal learning and development outcomes for children in publicly-funded pre-K programs, they will need to attend to issues that the NIEER benchmarks address, including teacher qualifications and compensation, alignment with early learning and development standards, teacher-to-student ratios, and a continuous quality improvement approach to instruction.

With regard to access, child enrollment remains low for families with low and moderate incomes, and most states do not serve “most or all 4-year-old children; even fewer states serve 3-year-olds.”

These challenges are expected to persist or worsen as a result of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. NIEER’s Yearbook Principal Investigator Steve Barnett notes that, “Even if the current economic crisis is short, its impact on state funding for pre-K—a discretionary program with a small constituency in most states—will be persistent. Unlike K–12 education programs, which reach the entire eligible population, state pre-K programs must receive extra support to ensure they can continue to expand even in difficult times. The danger is not just that children will miss out now, but that long-term progress will be permanently stunted.”

Finally, this year’s report also includes supplemental questions designed to describe how states administer preschool across the country. These data could be helpful in understanding how preschool is governed at the state level; which state-level entities have oversight responsibilities for preschool and how these are carried out; linkages with local implementation; and, staffing capacity to administer the state preschool program. You can find the data here.

2019 Fast Facts
  • Forty-four states, DC, and Guam provide publicly funded preschool to more than 1.6 million children.
  • Nine states enroll 50 percent or more of their 4- year-olds in state-funded pre-K.
  • States spent more than $8.7 billion on pre-K in 2018-19, a 3.5 percent increase from last year (inflation adjusted).
  • State spending per child enrolled in pre-K was flat since last year.
  • All reported spending (state + local + federal) for pre-K topped $10 billion for the first time.
  • The top four pre-K spenders (CA, TX, NY, NJ) account for more than 50 percent of state pre-K spending; more than 40 percent of children in state pre-K are in these states.
  • Four states met all 10 quality standards benchmarks; 10 states met fewer than half.
  • Nearly 40 percent of children are in programs meeting fewer than half; only eight percent are in programs meeting 9 or 10 quality benchmarks.