Pre-K Disparities: What You Get Depends on Where You Live

When we analyzed the data for The State of Preschool 2010, a disturbing trend that we noticed the previous year continued to appear: during these difficult economic times, disparities among states in providing high-quality preschool education are growing larger. Consequently, children’s access to and quality of experiences in preschool vary drastically depending on where they reside. For instance, a relatively small percentage of children (6 percent) in Alabama have access to a high-quality program (meeting all 10 of NIEER’s quality benchmarks) while their peers to the south in neighboring Florida have a better chance of having access (68 percent) to a lower quality program (meeting only three of 10 benchmarks). Alabama’s neighbors to the west in Mississippi have no state-funded preschool program at all to attend. This problem is not limited to the deep South – patterns like this repeat across the country. And tight state budgets are only exacerbating the problem.

While some states continued to move forward during the recession, others fell further behind, and some have dropped precipitously. Oklahoma remains the only state where almost every child has the opportunity to attend a quality preschool education program at age 4, but other states are at least approaching the goal of offering some state-funded education program to all children. In 10 states, the majority of children attend a public preschool program of some kind (see Table 1). At the other end of the spectrum, 10 states have no regular state preschool education program, although children may receive early learning experiences through Head Start and special education (see Table 2). In six states, fewer than 15 percent of 4-year-old children are enrolled in any public preschool program including Head Start.

Table 1: Top 10 States Serving 4-Year-Olds in State Pre-K

State Percent of 4-year-olds served

State Pre-K

State Pre-K and Special Education State Pre-K, Special Education, and Head Start
Oklahoma*

71

71

86

Florida

68

70

78

West Virginia

55

57

78

Georgia

55

57

63

Vermont

52

61

69

Wisconsin

52

55

63

Texas

47

48

57

New York

45

51

59

Arkansas

41

50

60

Iowa

38

43

51

* All 4-year-old special education children in Oklahoma are in the state pre-K program.

Table 2: No-Program States

State Percent of 4-year-olds served
Special Education Special Education and Head Start
Hawaii

5

15

Idaho

6

15

Indiana

7

15

Mississippi

7

37

Montana

5

22

New Hampshire

7

11

North Dakota

7

24

South Dakota

8

25

Utah

6

13

Wyoming

17

26

Other important disparities across the states include:
• State spending ranged from less than $1 million in Arizona to more than $790 million in both California and Texas. Ten states spent nothing on state pre-K.
• For states with initiatives, state funding per child exceeded $5,000 per child in 13 states, while in six others it fell below $2,500.
• Most states failed to meet NIEER benchmarks for teacher and assistant teacher qualifications. Seven states had programs that met fewer than half of our benchmarks for quality standards. The states failing to meet most benchmarks include three of the four states with the largest number of children — California, Florida, and Texas.
• There are no maximum class sizes or limits on staff-child ratios in Texas, the only state that fails to set either. California and Maine have limits on staff-child ratios but no class size limit. Most other states limit classes to 20 or fewer children with a teacher and an assistant.

3-Year-Olds Losing Ground?

Disparities aren’t limited only to geography but also extend to age – by and large, state preschool programs are for 4-year-olds. Even in states that enroll high percentages of their 4-year-old population, 3-year-olds have little or no access to state-funded preschool education.

Already low, enrollment of 3-year-olds decreased during the 2009-2010 school year, reversing an upward trend since the 2003-2004 school year. State pre-K programs served 170,885 3-year-olds, a decrease of almost 5,000 children from the previous year. Only 4.1 percent of the nation’s 3-year-olds are served in state-funded pre-K, meaning that even small declines in service provision can be dramatic. Thirteen states decreased their enrollment of 3-year-olds while11 states increased.

Illinois, New Jersey, and Vermont are clear leaders in enrollment of 3-year-olds (see Table 3), although no state serves even a quarter of their children in state pre-K at age 3. However, while Illinois is still the leader in serving 3-year-olds, the state actually declined in the percentage of 3-year-olds served from the 2008-2009 school year to the 2009-2010 school year.

Even when accounting for state pre-K, special education, and Head Start enrollment, only Vermont, Illinois, and New Jersey serve more than a quarter of their 3-year-old population. Arkansas is close behind with 24.5 percent of their 3-year-olds served through the state pre-K, special education, and Head Start programs. Interestingly, although it does not have a state-funded pre-K program, Mississippi serves more than a quarter of their 3-year-olds in Head Start and special education, surpassing most states that do have state-funded pre-K with access for 3-year-olds.

Table 3: Top 5 States Serving 3-Year-Olds in State Pre-K

State

Percent of 3-Year-Olds Served

State Pre-K

State Pre-K and Special Education State Pre-K, Special Education, and Head Start
Illinois

19

21

29

New Jersey

18

22

28

Vermont

17

25

29

Nebraska

11

13

18

Kentucky*

10

10

20

* All 3-year-old children in Kentucky’s preschool program are special education students who have either a developmental delay or an identified disability.

While we are encouraged by success stories such as Oklahoma’s near universal status with a high-quality program and West Virginia’s move toward a high-quality universal program, we are troubled by the fact that many children are growing up in states with little or no access to preschool education or access to programs of low quality. As the expression goes, states are the laboratories of democracy, but wide disparities in educational opportunities for children bring to mind mad scientists rather than the Curies. We remain concerned as pre-K programs face difficult budget choices that can exacerbate today’s disparities and hope all stakeholders can work together to preserve the future for the youngest learners.

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

4 Responses to Pre-K Disparities: What You Get Depends on Where You Live

  1. Kathy Reschke says:

    I appreciate the summary of state-funded preK programs – thank you. One concern I have, however, is that the article seems to imply that state-funded preK = high quality programs. I have seen state-funded preK programs that were not especially high quality (in terms of developmentally appropriate practice) and I have seen community-based programs that were very high quality. I understand the intent but I do think care needs to be taken to not overstate the relationship between state funding and quality.
    Kathy

    • NIEER says:

      Care quality that varies by setting is yet another disparity like those we have outlined in this post. The data we use here is derived from our State of Preschool report, though, which focuses primarily on state-funded programs and not community-based ones. We do agree, however, that not all state-funded pre-K is created equal and are concerned not only about disparities in access to state pre-K but also disparities in the quality of available state pre-K. Resources, access, and quality are all intertwined and contribute to the early education children receive.

  2. Nancy Chick says:

    You have completely left out private pre-k in your article and study. In Texas, a large part of the preschool population attends private preschools. The implication in your article is that only state pre-k, special education and Head Start are quality programs and that that private programs do not even qualify to be considered. I think you are sadly mistaken.,

  3. […] the country, and access to freely available prekindergarten is limited rather than universal and varies greatly from state to state. Preschool education programs can further many of the goals in Article 28, including the reduction […]

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