Universal preschool is the next big thing in public education—or at least, in the politics of education. Hailed as a great equalizer by children’s advocates and championed as a bipartisan line item for conservatives and liberals. The only problem is that universal pre-K isn’t very universal in the communities that need it most.
The latest data crunch of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) suggests that while universal pre-Kindergarten holds enormous promise, programs in many cities and states suffer from inconsistent funding, uneven standards and failure to develop workforces to meet widening social needs.
NIEER’s report shows that in 2015 there was “continue[d] improvement in state funded pre-K with larger increases in enrollment, spending, spending per child, and quality standards than the previous year. State funded pre-K served almost 1.4 million children in 2014-2015, an increase of 37,167 children from the previous year” (about 29 percent of 4 year olds and 5 percent of three year olds nationwide). Pre-K spending has risen to nearly $4,500 per student, though this is still down from 2008 levels. Still, as with many nominally universal social programs, the rapid spread across states have also brought greater polarization—often along the same socioeconomic lines that universal pre-K was designed to help erase. The researchers noted that while some states are hitting new achievement benchmarks, “progress has been unequal and uneven with some states taking large steps forward and other states moving backward.”
Some substandard pre-K programs, according to the report, were concentrated in some of the largest, poorest communities: “California, Texas, and Florida have the highest numbers of children in poverty, serve the largest numbers of children, and have some of the lowest quality standards in the nation.” Meanwhile, volatile education budgets have hampered overall expansion: Pre-K programs in “13 states…reduced enrollment with Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin cutting enrollment by more than 2,000 children each.”
States are nonetheless getting more universal in terms of promoting uniform early-education standards: Nationwide, benchmarks for preschool programs have intensified, with more programs requiring, for example, that pre-K teachers have at least 15 hours of in-service training and a bachelor’s degree. But in some states like Texas and Pennsylvania, programs have failed to set parameters for decent class size and staff-student ratio standards. Reflecting the tension between access and quality, the pattern suggests that classes may grow at a rate that outpaces the growth and improvement of the teaching workforce.
The federal government can play a major part in shifting the country toward a universal preschool infrastructure. Many programs have been boosted by the White House’s Preschool Development Grant program. But again, year-to-year grants come on a piecemeal basis, which won’t resolve generational challenges to systemically overhauling early education programs.