Child’s Play: Should Preschoolers Engage with Technology or Good-Old Fashioned Fun?

June 30, 2011

As Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole in children’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she grabs at a jar of orange marmalade and, having no place to put it when she is done, watches it fall. With the touch of a fingertip, a child reading pulls the jar of orange marmalade back to the top of the page and lets it plummet back down again. The child can also dangle the white rabbit’s pocket watch, stretch Alice taller when she partakes from the bottle labeled “Drink Me,” and so on. This is the Alice app for Apple’s iPad tablet, hailed as a new kind of pop-up book for young readers, that enables children to manipulate images to encourage interactive reading. It’s only one of countless apps designed for children, including numerous ones that appear to have the preschool-age audience in mind.

Apps for smart phones and tablets are just the latest digital media to offer up entertainment for children. They compete for screen time with television, the Internet, and computer and video games. And there is no shortage of technology-based toys, including pretend cell phones and laptops for infants and toddlers and even functioning digital cameras for preschoolers.

But is all this technology appropriate for the youngest children?

Organizations that study the effects of technology on children are hard-pressed to keep on top of the rapid updates that occur on a seemingly daily basis. Some are finding the need to re-evaluate previous positions on the subject. For instance, earlier this year, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media posted a draft revision of the NAEYC position statement, Technology and Young Children—Ages 3 to 8, which has not been updated since 1996. After reviewing public comments on the draft, the two organizations will update the position statement, re-name it Technology in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, and release it in the fall of 2011.

As it is currently drafted, the new statement begins by affirming that digital media and technology can be viewed as “learning tools that, when used in intentional and developmentally appropriate ways and in conjunction with other traditional tools and materials, can support the development and learning of young children.” This is not a surprising conclusion, especially noting how frequently digital media tools mimic typical childhood activities. For instance, children can turn the pages of a picture book on an e-reader, use a stylus to color and draw on a tablet, and play electronic versions of card and board games on smart phones.

(It should be noted that the two organizations view only interactive digital tools in this manner—more rigid and static media, such as television, does not hold any potential in their opinion. Low-quality day care centers, recently found in a study to be placing children in front of TV screens on average four times per month, should be put on notice.)

NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center’s position statement goes on to provide guidelines for selecting and using appropriate technology-based and digital media applications for classroom use. The two organizations are not alone in promoting digital media literacy – among others, PBS provides suggestions for teachers on how to use a variety of technology-based tools in pre-K through high school classrooms. And it’s not just teachers that are being encouraged to engage with children as they interact with technology and digital media. Organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and even the television station WETA encourage parents to make television viewing and video game playing into interactive family events; to talk to and ask questions about what children watch and play with; and to play alongside children with mobile apps to facilitate learning and communication.

These suggestions seem to acknowledge that technology is a pervasive fact of modern life; indeed ABC News last month reported on a study indicating that 75 percent of mothers allow their children to play with smart phones. And, the news program noted, schools are purchasing tablets for children in kindergarten.

Some, however, are not convinced that there is any benefit to allowing children to play with technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend that children age 2 and under have no screen time at all and older children be exposed to no more than one or two hours of screen time per day. These recommendations seem valid considering that numerous studies (although generally focusing on non-interactive TV viewing) point to a link between increased screen time and negative consequences including attention deficit, behavioral problems, higher psychological difficulty scores, less physical activity, obesity, irregular sleeping patterns, impaired academic performance, violence, and less time for active and imaginative play.

It is this last point that is of particular concern to early childhood educators when planning classroom activities and dovetails with the question of whether children should engage in play with technology-based tools or be left to their own devices for creative play. As noted above, some technological tools available do appear to be mimicking traditional childhood activities such as coloring, reading, and game-playing so the choice may becoming less of an either-or situation. But in general, technology-based tools tend toward adult-scripted, rule-based activities versus child-directed, unstructured play. And the latter has been found to be incredibly influential in children’s healthy development. Among the benefits of this kind of play are learning self-control and how to plan ahead, becoming problem-solvers, and working out emotional and social issues such as anxiety and sharing.

Indeed, NIEER has long looked at child-directed, imaginative play as a means for young children to learn both intellectually and socially. We are not alone in this approach – the books A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence provide anecdotal and research evidence to back up the power of play and its potential in early childhood education classrooms.

Imaginative, creative play was brought to the forefront of the public’s mind this fall with the Ultimate Block Party, an event that stressed the importance of play in a day-long festival of child-friendly activities. Play will also be receiving academic treatment in 2012 when Routledge begins publishing the International Journal of Play, a multidisciplinary effort to examine all aspects of play across the globe.

These are encouraging developments and suggest that some have been heeding the words of psychologist Carl Jung, “Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.” Even with a boundless supply of new technological toys for children, we should provide children with plenty of time to explore their own creativity through imaginative, child-directed play for future innovations in technology and beyond.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

Resources: State Pre-K on the Chopping Block?

June 28, 2011



In our annual report of state-funded preschool programs, we examine three key features of each state pre-K initiative: access, quality standards, and resources. Here we provide a big picture look at the last of these features, resources, in an effort to analyze the nation’s commitment to financing prekindergarten at the state level. (See our previous posts in this series for analyses of access and quality standards.)

In The State of Preschool 2010: State Preschool Yearbook, we found that in the 2009-2010 school year, states spent more than $5 billion on state pre-K.*  This represents an inflation-adjusted decrease of almost $30 million or 0.6 percent from the previous year, when this spending had a 10 percent nominal increase the previous year. The decrease in real state spending on pre-K is unprecedented and confirms the negative affect of the recession on pre-K many anticipated.

Furthermore, state funding per child for pre-K decreased by $114 for the 2009-2010 school year.  This downward slide, coupled with the more modest decline of the pervious year, indicates the dangerous impact of the recession on state-funded pre-K. And, without the aid of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds, per-child spending nationwide would actually have decreased by $148 to less than $4,000 per child, a low not seen since the 2007-2008 school year.  While stimulus funds taper off, pre-K funding may be further jeopardized in the next years as states continue to reel from budget crunches.

However, state funding is not the only source of funds for state pre-K programs as states may choose to direct local and federal funds toward state-funded preschool education initiatives. Lack of information about local and locally allocated federal funds makes it difficult to determine how much is actually spent on prekindergarten in each state. While not all state preschool programs are explicitly designed to rely on combined state, federal, and local funding as is the case with K-12, it is still common to do so. Although we continue to improve our ability to estimate funds from federal and local sources, these data remain incomplete, making it difficult to make good cross-year comparisons on total funding per child. Nationwide, per-child spending from all reported sources was $4,653 though this figure surely underestimates the true national figure if all spending could be identified.

Other key findings regarding funding include:

•  State spending per child nationwide was $4,028, an inflation-adjusted decrease of $114 per child.

•  States differ greatly in per-child spending.  New Jersey, Connecticut, Alaska and Oregon spent more than twice the national average of per-child spending. On the other end of the spectrum, Arizona spent only $115 per child. Nebraska, South Carolina and Maine spent less than $2,000 per child. Colorado, Kansas, Florida and Nevada spent less than $3,000 per child.

•  Adding up all reported public funding for state-funded prekindergarten (federal, state, and local), the total exceeded $5.7 billion dollars, an increase of $55 million or just one percent over the prior year (inflation-adjusted).

•  We continue to get more accurate information on funding from other sources, making a large difference in total funding for some states. Based on reported spending, nine states used local and/or federal sources to fund at least one-third of their program.  Additionally, over half of the funding for pre-K in Maryland, Kentucky, and South Carolina came from these non-state sources.

•  Per-child spending from state, local, and locally allocated federal funds was $4,653 for the nation. This is an inflation-adjusted decrease of $58 from the previous year.  If the increase of only $32 per child in the previous year was a sober indicator of the recession’s potential impact, this year’s decrease confirms the fears that state pre-K could be battered by the downturn.

•  We can only confirm 17 states spent enough to deliver a program that met all 10 NIEER benchmarks.  Some others may, but even allowing for incomplete reporting on spending, a substantial number of states are unlikely to provide funding adequate to sustain an educationally effective pre-K program. (See Table 7 of The State of Preschool 2010 for details).

•  More than 60 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K nationwide were served in six states—California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Texas—none of which report enough per-child funding from all sources to adequately fund a high-quality preschool education program.

•  Some states used funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) to replace lost state funds for pre-K.  Without these reported funds, state spending per child would have fallen even further to $3,994 while all source spending would be $4,619.

The Yearbook also includes an analysis of which states adequately funded their preschool education initiatives to meet the NIEER quality standards benchmarks. This year, we could identify with confidence only 17 states as providing sufficient funding to meet all 10 benchmarks. While states might have adequately funded programs, we did not have sufficient information on other sources of funding to make that determination.  Seven of the states that we could not clearly identify as adequately funded met eight or more of NIEER’s benchmarks, including Alabama which met all 10 NIEER benchmarks.

In sum, two consecutive decreases in inflation-adjusted state spending per child enrolled is taking its toll on pre-K programs.  State per-child spending is almost $700 below its 2001-2002 level. Since the 2001-2002 school year, eleven states have decreased nominal per-child spending, and a total of 25 states have failed to keep up with inflation. Looking ahead, many states are struggling to make ends meet and pre-K is all too often sacrificed in the attempt to balance budgets.  Researchers and economists agree that high-quality early childhood education more than pays for itself in academic and social benefits.  Scrimping on quality programs for young learners may help close budget gaps now but, in the long-term, it is a “penny wise, pound foolish” approach to future prosperity.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

*Note: A policy change in California resulted in a large increase in enrollment and funding reported for preschool by that state.  In prior years, California funded child care with similar goals and standards to preschool, but with periodic redetermination of eligibility based on parental work status and income that failed to ensure children obtained at least one school year of service.  This policy was changed and these programs merged with preschool.  The increase in children and funding for California over last year thus reflects a positive policy change, but not a net increase in enrollment or spending across all early childhood programs. The increase in California’s spending and enrollment is thus not counted in national figures.

Quality Standards: Gains and Losses in Tough Times

June 22, 2011



In our annual report of state-funded preschool programs, we examine three key features of each state pre-K initiative: access, quality standards, and resources. Here we provide a big picture look at the one of these features, quality standards, in an effort to analyze the nation’s commitment to offering high-quality preschool experiences at the state level. (For an analysis of pre-K access, see part one of this series.)

One of the most important factors in predicting preschool education’s effectiveness is the educational quality of programs. Quality is linked to effects on children’s development and academic success over time as well as other outcomes that yield economic benefits to society as a whole. States should set minimum standards for each classroom in preschool programs to ensure that all children are served in educationally effective programs and should provide adequate funding to support these standards. While standards alone do not guarantee quality, it is unreasonable to expect preschool education programs to replicate the success of previous programs without having similar high standards. For this reason, The State of Preschool 2010 compares each state program’s standards against a checklist of 10 research-based quality standards benchmarks, each representing a different component of program quality. (A list of the benchmarks and a summary of the supporting research can be found beginning on page 22 here.)

While each benchmark helps define quality, they do not all carry equal weight in predicting program effectiveness nor do they encompass all possible aspects of program quality. Rather, these benchmarks are preconditions for quality that offer evidence of a state’s commitment to provide every child enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs with a high-quality and effective experience. Finally, it is important to consider that the quality benchmarks focus on the policy requirements of the preschool initiative rather than actual practice. Therefore, since these benchmarks represent minimum standards, some classrooms may exceed state-level policy requirements or conversely fail to meet state-level policy if programs do not adhere to requirements. In some states, classrooms failing to meet a benchmark may represent a very small proportion so that the practical difference statewide is minute.  However, for those children who miss out on a quality education, the difference may be enormous.

During the 2009-2010 program year, 25 states met seven or more benchmarks, and most states met at least five benchmarks. Four states – Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia – each increased the number of benchmarks met by one, while two states – Nebraska and Ohio – both lost ground on benchmarks by reducing program monitoring due to budget cuts. In addition, new pilot programs in Alaska and Rhode Island each met all 10 benchmarks. For a complete summary of the benchmarks met by each state-funded preschool program during the 2009-2010 school year, see Table 5 of The State of Preschool 2010.

As seen below in Figure 2, the total number of quality standards benchmarks met by state preschool programs has risen and fallen since NIEER began tracking them in the 2001-2002 school year. Notably, in the 2009-2010 school year, the addition of two state-funded prekindergarten initiatives, which each achieved all 10 quality standards benchmarks, influenced the total number of benchmarks upwards. When not accounting for these two programs, four benchmarks decreased, two increased, and four stayed the same.  (Note, in addition to the changes in benchmarks explained above, the 2009-2010 school year saw the loss of one of Ohio’s state preschool programs, which accounts for the total number of some benchmarks decreasing.)

Other key findings regarding quality standards in the 2009-2010 school year include:

• Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and one Louisiana program (NSECD) met all 10 benchmarks.

•  Twelve other states had programs that met nine out of 10 benchmarks – Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana LA4, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey Abbott, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Washington.

• Unlike the large increases seen in previous years, no program this year increased their quality standards benchmarks by more than one.

•  Only eight programs continued to meet fewer than half of the 10 benchmarks: California, Texas, and Vermont (both the EEI and Act 62 programs) met four; Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK met three; and Ohio met only two benchmarks. However, more than 40 percent of all children enrolled in state-funded pre-K nationwide are in these seven states.

•  Two benchmarks are met by fewer than half of all 52 programs: only 16 programs require assistant teachers to have at least a CDA or equivalent credential, and 24 programs require at least one meal per day to be offered. In addition, 27 programs – only slight more than half – require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree.

•  Texas and Pennsylvania’s K4 program are the only programs to set no limits on maximum class sizes and staff-child ratios. California and Maine limit staff-child ratios, but not class size. Arizona, Maine, Ohio, and Wisconsin 4K set limits for class size and/or staff-child ratio, but these limits are not stringent enough to meet the benchmarks.

Despite mostly forward progress, standards continue to vary a great deal from state to state. For example, children in Georgia and Alabama have access to programs that meet nine and 10 of the NIEER quality standards benchmarks, respectively. But in the neighboring state of Florida, children attend programs that must meet only three benchmarks. For children in states with lower quality programs, they are potentially missing out on the most meaningful early education experiences.  In our experience, program standards are much less likely to change year to year than are either access or funding, perhaps due to how they are legislatively established.  While this is sometimes a silver lining—most programs did not see standards relaxed in response to the recession—states have also not made big improvements in this area over the years.  At a time when all stakeholders are sensitive to the fiscal constraints on programs, it is unlikely to see a significant push in this area in the next few years.  For the sake of the more than one million children in state-funded pre-K, we hope we are wrong.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER
– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Preschool Access: With Tough Budget Choices Ahead, Will Enrollment Stagnate?

June 17, 2011


In our annual report of state-funded preschool programs, we examine three key features of each state pre-K initiative: access, quality standards, and resources. Here we provide a big picture look at the first of these three features, access, in an effort to analyze the nation’s commitment to providing preschool education at the state level.

As we saw in The State of Preschool 2010, state-funded prekindergarten enrollment increased slightly for the 2009-2010 school year, continuing the trend of slow growth in access to state pre-K across the country seen over the last two years. State-funded pre-K served 1,292,310 children in 52 programs in 40 states during the 2009-2010 school year, including 1,283,890 3- and 4-year-olds. The percentage of children enrolled in such programs varies widely by state (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1.

During the 2009-2010 school year, 4-year-old enrollment increased by only 3.8 percent nationally while access for 3-year-olds decreased by 3.2 percent. This is in sharp contrast to the years before the recession when enrollment for both ages grew steadily each year. We anticipate that growth in access to state-funded pre-K will be no better in the 2010-2011 school year, especially considering that several programs have already been eliminated entirely or are being considered for termination or serious cuts to funding. Figure 2 shows the changes in percent of children enrolled in state-funded pre-K over time.

Figure 2.

Other key findings regarding access for the 2009-2010 school year include:

• Nearly 27 percent of 4-year-olds and almost 4 percent of 3-year-olds were served in 40 states, reflecting a one percentage point increase in 4-year-olds and stagnation for 3-year-olds.
• In the 2009-2010 school year, 26 states increased the enrollment of 4-year-olds, down from 31 states in the 2008-2009 school year. In addition, new pilot programs in Alaska and Rhode Island serve only 4-year-olds.
• Ten states decreased their enrollment of 4-year-olds in the 2009-2010 school year, although three of these states increased their enrollment of 3-year-olds.
• Oklahoma continues to serve the largest percentage of 4-year-olds at 71 percent, followed closely by Florida at 68 percent. These two states, along with West Virginia (55 percent), Georgia (55 percent), Vermont (52 percent) and Wisconsin (52 percent), are the only ones to serve more than half of their 4-year-olds in state pre-K programs.
• Enrollment for 3-year-olds decreased by more than 4,000 children nationwide. Illinois, New Jersey, and Vermont were the only states to serve more than 15 percent of their 3-year-olds in state pre-K. California, Nebraska, and Kentucky all served approximately 10 percent of their 3-year-olds.
• Overall, including special education and Head Start, enrollment increased by 1.4 percentage points for 4-year-olds while enrollment of 3-year-olds rose by only 0.4 percentage points.

As we note above, while there was some improvement in the number of children enrolled in state-fund preschool programs across the nation, the rate of growth has slowed considerably since the recession hit. Many states working towards the goal of universal access have had to put their plans on hold as funding levels hang in the balance. Some programs that enroll children in low-income families have been faced with a double-whammy this year: as unemployment persists, more families meet the income requirements for pre-K, but the programs do not have funding to enroll all eligible children. Enrollment and funding are inherently intertwined, and many programs have had to choose between increasing enrollment for those who can benefit versus allocating funds to improve program quality for a smaller number of students. These are difficult choices for all stakeholders, and ones that must be carefully considered and debated as public finance troubles persist.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER
– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

The Bottom Ten: A Closer Look at No-Program States

June 6, 2011

The State of Preschool 2010 provided some good news regarding two new pilot programs in Alaska and Rhode Island, meaning there is no longer a “dirty dozen” of states without preschool education programs. However, 10 states still have not made preschool a priority and lack such programs for young learners. These “Bottom Ten” states do provide some services to their youngest learners through federal special education and Head Start programs, though enrollment is limited only to those most “at-risk,” whether due to disability or meeting a low-income threshold.

“Preschool-age children in these 10 states are denied the opportunity of early learning experiences that will help them succeed both in school and later in life,” says W. Steven Barnett, NIEER’s co-director and author of the report. “In particular, states in the Mountain West and Upper Midwest with predominantly rural populations need to find a way to provide access to high-quality pre-K.”

In this post, we take a closer look at the bottom 10 states that don’t fund pre-K programs meeting our definition of a state program.  For additional information on these and all other states, visit the State Data page.

Ten states don't provide state-funded pre-K programs.


Although Hawaii does not have a state-funded pre-K program that meets the criteria of the report, the state funds several initiatives providing early learning services. The state’s Preschool Open Doors Project provides low-income families with subsidies to purchase preschool education for their 4-year-olds and, in limited cases, 3-year-olds with special needs. Income eligibility is reassessed and children can be removed from the program based on increases in family income, so the Preschool Open Doors Project is best viewed as offering support to working families rather than as a dedicated educational program.

Other prekindergarten initiatives in the state include the Pre-Plus Program, Junior Kindergarten, Keiki First Steps, and Special Education Preschool. In addition, the state is piloting pre-K programs in two elementary schools. Although remarkable progress has been made, the “Youngest State” still has room to grow in serving its youngest learners.


Idaho dedicated $1.5 million in TANF funds to supplement the federal Head Start program in the 2009-2010 school year, enrolling an additional 195 children in the program. But, even with these children, Idaho enrolls less than 7 percent of the state’s 3-year-olds and less than 15 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds in special education preschool and Head Start. Only Utah enrolls a smaller proportion of 3-year-olds, and Idaho is in the bottom five states for enrollment of 4-year-olds.


Enrollment of 4-year-olds in special education preschool and Head Start in Indiana is just barely at 15 percent, with only five states enrolling fewer 4-year-olds. Earlier this year, pre-K was notably absent from Governor Daniels’s education reform agenda. At that time, the office of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction expressed interest in investing in state-funded pre-K but noted that the state funding for such a program was unlikely to be available in the near future.


In 2008, the state established Mississippi Building Blocks, a public-private program designed to provide effective support to and increase the quality of existing child care centers. In 2010, a special commission of business leaders and education experts began studying the program as a basis for establishing a statewide model.

When accounting for early education access through Head Start and special education preschool, Mississippi is in the top 5 states enrolling 3-year-olds, serving a higher percent of 3-year-olds than most states with state-funded pre-K programs. With nearly 27 percent of 3-year-olds served in these federal programs, Mississippi’s enrollment is topped only by Vermont, Illinois, and New Jersey. These four states are the only ones to serve more than a quarter of their 3-year-old population.  In addition, Mississippi enrolls almost 37 percent of 4-year-olds in federal pre-K programs.  Despite these advances, Mississippi’s lack of state-funded pre-K makes it an anomaly in the South, where nearby states have committed themselves to universal access.


Federal special education preschool and Head Start programs in Montana enroll nearly 15 percent of 3-year-olds and 22 percent of 4-year-olds in publicly-funded early learning programs.  This places Montana in the top 20 states for 3-year-old program access, but the bottom 20 for 4-year-old access.  Relying on these programs limits access for most children in the state, and Montana cannot truly be the “Treasure State” for young children until the state makes available access to high-quality pre-K.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire provides slightly more than $300,000 in state supplemental funds to the federal Head Start program. Rather than using these funds to enroll additional children as most states do, New Hampshire dedicates this funding to enhancing teacher salaries.  Less than 9 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in a state or federal program in New Hampshire, below the national figure of 14 percent. With only about 11 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds enrolled in special education preschool and Head Start, New Hampshire ties with Nevada for the bottom spot for 4-year-old enrollment in state and/or federal pre-K programs.

North Dakota

North Dakota enrolls 16 percent of its 3-year-olds and nearly 24 percent of its 4-year-olds through federal Head Start and special education preschool. But, the Grand Forks Herald notes that Head Start has a waiting list of more than 800 children throughout the state, indicating that demand outpaces access. State Representative Kathy Hawken told the newspaper, “This particular (legislative) session has not been kind to children. We have pretty much defeated most of the bills that had to do with kids, whether it was health care or prenatal care or CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program). We didn’t fund school nurses. We didn’t fund Head Start.” In addition, earlier this year, the state Senate defeated a bill to fund a $1.5 million pilot preschool program in four school districts. However, a recent law does include expansion statewide of Gearing Up for Kindergarten, a parent education program designed to prepare 4-year-olds for school.  North Dakota has weathered the recession better than most states – since 2006, the state has had the smallest increase in the unemployment rate nationwide, as well as the largest increase in per capita income.  Investing in the future workforce through pre-K can solidify the state’s path to economic prosperity and maintain this growth for future generations.

South Dakota

Existing special education preschool and Head Start programs enroll 16.5 percent of the state’s 3-year-olds and 24.5 percent of its 4-year-olds. Additionally, the Starting Strong Sioux Falls public-private pre-K pilot program was in its third year during the 2009-2010 school year. In response to positive outcomes from this pilot program, a pre-K pilot is being planned for Rapid City. While these pilot programs are encouraging, state-funded early education is only available in select areas. Statewide, the “Land of Infinite Variety” consistently shoots down any attempts to vary preschool education opportunities with the inclusion of state-funded pre-K.


Utah enrolls only 6 percent of its 3-year-olds and almost 13 percent of its 4-year-olds in special education preschool and Head Start. This makes the state last in the nation for enrollment of 3-year-olds. For enrollment of 4-year-olds, Utah exceeds only New Hampshire and Nevada. Unfortunately, Utah is not alone in its underinvestment in young children, as it is one of the four Mountain West states that fail to provide state-funded pre-K.


With no state-funded prekindergarten program, Wyoming still enrolls nearly 17 percent of its 3-year-olds and 26 percent of its 4-year-olds in special education preschool and Head Start. But this means only children with special needs or from low-income families have access to high-quality early learning opportunities. The “Equality State” could benefit from heeding U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s comment at The State of Preschool 2010 press conference that educational inequality is the civil rights issue of our time and increased access to quality pre-K and other early learning opportunities is the way to begin addressing disparities.

2009-2010 Enrollment of 3- and 4-Year-Olds in Preschool Special Education & Federal and State Head Start

State Percent of 3-year-old population (SpEd) Percent of 4-year-old population (SpEd) Percent of 3-year-old population (SpEd + HdSt††) Percent of 4-year-old population (SpEd + HdSt††)
Hawaii 3.8% 5.1% 8.4% 14.5%
Idaho 3.7% 5.6% 6.7% 14.7%
Indiana 5.2% 7.0% 9.7% 14.8%
Mississippi 4.1% 6.9% 26.9% 36.8%
Montana 2.6% 5.0% 14.9% 22.1%
New Hampshire 5.5% 7.1% 8.8% 11.4%
North Dakota 4.8% 7.1% 16.1% 23.7%
South Dakota 5.3% 8.0% 16.5% 24.5%
Utah 3.9% 6.1% 6.5% 12.8%
Wyoming 10.7% 16.7% 16.8% 26.0%

†† This figure includes federally funded and state-funded Head Start enrollment.
Source: The State of Preschool 2010: State Preschool Yearbook

Preschool provides a return on investment these states cannot afford to miss out on. Years of research have demonstrated the benefits of high-quality preschool. Compared to children without high-quality preschool, children who attend are more likely to graduate high school and go on to higher education. They are less likely to require special education or repeat a grade, become teenage parents, or commit crimes as teens or adults, all at great savings to taxpayers. As adults, they are more likely to be qualified to fill the demand for skilled workers that will keep America competitive in the global economy.  As revenues begin the return to pre-recession levels, each of these ten states in particular must take a good look at their fiscal house and choose to make investment in their future a priority.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

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