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State Spots In Preschool Declining, Report Finds

Student-teacher ratio is one component of high-quality preschool.
Barnaby Wasson
Student-teacher ratio is one component of high-quality preschool.

Public preschool enrollment fell slightly last year, according to a report released today by researchers at Rutgers University.

About 9,000 fewer children attended public pre-K programs in 2013 than in 2012, the report from the university's National Institute for Early Education Researchsays. It's the first time since researchers began examining this issue in 2002 that the numbers have fallen.

The decline is surprising, given the increasing public discussion about the importance of early childhood education. But it also comes at a time of budget shortfalls. Overall, there were almost half a billion dollars in budget cuts to state early education programs in the previous year, 2011-2012. The reported decline also doesn't yet reflect high-profile expansions to these types of programs underway in states such as Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Alabama, and New York.

Overall, about 28 percent of four year olds, and 4 percent of three year olds, currently attend public Pre-K programs. At the press announcement of the report, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that the U.S. ranks near the bottom among industrialized nations in the percentage of three and four year olds enrolled in pre-school.

"If we are going to lead in a globally competitive economy, we must do better," said Duncan. In countries such as Germany and Japan more than 95 percent of four year olds are enrolled in early childhood education.

But access to early education isn't the only issue. As we reported in our special series on the high quality preschool program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the quality of these programs, if anything, matters even more.

The Institute's report shows that more than forty percent of children in state pre K are in lower-quality programs, those that met fewer than half of the Institute's ten benchmarks for quality standards. The report also showed that pre-K in several of the nation's most populous states - Texas, California and Florida – remain troubled by low standards, large class sizes and poor student-teacher ratios. To help explain the variation in quality, the report cites one key factor: funding. Spending per child varies wildly, from over $14,000 in D.C. to less than $2000 in South Carolina and Nebraska.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.