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The pandemic erased a decade of public preschool gains

Students attend a pre-K class at P.S. 124 in New York City on Jan 13, 2021. A new report found enrollment drops at state-based preschool programs during the 2020-2021 school year.
Michael Loccisano
Getty Images
Students attend a pre-K class at P.S. 124 in New York City on Jan 13, 2021. A new report found enrollment drops at state-based preschool programs during the 2020-2021 school year.

State-based preschool programs suffered big drops in enrollment and state funding in the teeth of the pandemic, according to an annual review by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. If there is good news in the report, it's that, during the 2020-2021 school year, federal relief money filled the hole left by states' spending cuts.

"There is no time to waste. State-funded programs desperately need the resources to address pervasive problems in access to high-quality early learning and to support teachers," says Allison Friedman-Krauss, NIEER assistant research professor and the parent of a preschooler.

NIEER has been releasing its annual State of Preschool report for two decades now, and this year's edition, looking at the 2020-2021 school year, offers a remarkable, albeit dated, snapshot of the pandemic's impact on preschool in the U.S.

The review is a blizzard of swirling data points, so we thought we'd start by handpicking a few of the most compelling numbers.

Pre-K enrollment declined for the first time in 20 years

According to the report, nearly 300,000 fewer children were enrolled in preschool during the 2020-2021 school year compared to 2019-2020 – an 18% drop. Given the timeframe, researchers attribute the drop largely to pandemic-driven school closures and the challenges of providing preschool remotely. On average, states wound up serving less than 30% of all 4-year-olds. The news was worse for 3-year-olds: States served less than 5%.

"The pandemic wiped out a decade of progress increasing enrollment in state-funded preschool programs," the report warns.

Some states cut funding, but Congress plugged the gap

States spent roughly $9 billionon pre-K during the 2020-2021 school year – an inflation-adjusted decrease of $254 million compared to the previous year and "the largest decline in funding since the Great Recession," according to the report.

Now the good news: The federal government provided roughly $440 million in preschool pandemic relief that states were able to use to more than offset that $254 million drop.

States spent $5,867 per child, on average, a number that NIEER says "has not improved appreciably in two decades" after adjusting for inflation.

One caveat: This is an estimate, based not on programs' actual enrollment but on capacity. That's because with funding largely flat overall but enrollment significantly down, states actually spent more than $7,000 per child. But NIEER says measuring programs' spending based on capacity last year, instead of actual enrollment, is a more accurate comparison to previous years.

Similarly, the report notes that, overall, state spending on preschool has more than doubled over the last two decades, from $4.1 billion in 2002 to roughly $9 billion in 2021. But when you slice the data another way, looking at state dollars per child, spending has been remarkably flat.

"I can tell you, preschool matters," said U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on a Monday call with reporters. "Preschool should be available for everyone, but right now it's not. We made some strides as a nation, but we still have a long way to go."

Low-income families were hit hardest

Perhaps the most worrying data in the report come from parent surveys that capture the pandemic's impact on preschool enrollment based on family income.

Before the pandemic, nearly half of low-income children, 47%, were enrolled in some kind of preschool. By fall of 2021, though, that number had dipped to 31%. By comparison, before the pandemic, 62% of children from families with incomes above $25,000 were enrolled in preschool, and, though that number likewise dropped, by fall 2021 it had returned to 58%.

In six states, enrollment dropped by more than 30%

The report includes a color-coded map showing which states suffered the greatest drops in preschool enrollment: Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Kentucky and Nevada.

Interestingly, half a dozen states saw enrollment increases: Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Washington.

Some states were close to universal pre-K before the pandemic

When you combine state preschool, special education and federally funded Head Start programs, NIEER found six states, plus Washington, D.C., were serving at least 70% of their 4-year-olds before the pandemic began: Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Only D.C. continued to serve more than 70% of 4-year-olds in 2020-2021.

Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming did not offer a public preschool program during the 2020-2021 school year.

Enough about quantity, what about quality?

NIEER's annual review isn't just about enrollment and funding; it's also about quality control. Researchers evaluate every state using 10 benchmarks of quality, including whether they have early learning standards, small class sizes and well-trained teachers.

Just five state programs scored a perfect 10 out of 10: Alabama, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Hawaii's Executive Office on Early Learning Public Prekindergarten Program and Michigan's Great Start Readiness Program.

West Virginia is one of a handful of state programs that scored between nine and a 10.

"West Virginia has now become the diamond in the rough that everybody missed," said the state's Republican governor, Jim Justice, on a phone call with reporters discussing the NIEER report. West Virginia's Universal Pre-K program operates in every county in the state and met nine of NIEER's 10 quality benchmarks. Justice called investing in preschool "off-the-charts important."

"I don't care if you're a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent – first and foremost, we're Americans. And we need to be constantly doing the right thing for America," Justice said.

At the other end of the spectrum, programs in Alaska, Florida and North Dakota met just two of NIEER's 10 quality benchmarks.

About 40% of all children in state-funded preschool are enrolled in programs that meet fewer than half of NIEER's quality standards.

Whatever happened to President Biden's big preschool plan?

NIEER's review lands at an awkward moment for the Biden administration. The president is an outspoken champion of universal preschool and made the idea a central theme of his Build Back Better agenda, pledging $10 billion over the next two years to ramp up states' pre-K capacity. That legislation has been stalled for months in the Senate, though Biden did also ask for additional pre-K funding in his 2023 budget proposal.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.