How states vary in recent trends in access to pre-k

As mentioned in a previous post, the recent NIEER Yearbook shows that pre-K funding declined slightly in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars from fiscal year 2008-2009 to 2009-2010.

Overall access to pre-K was also relatively stable. For example, overall U.S. enrollment in state pre-K programs for 4-year-olds increased by 1.9%.

However, this was not true for all states. The three states with the biggest absolute drops in enrollment in age-4 state pre-K programs were Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. These states experienced the following declines in age-4 enrollment:   Illinois: 17,011 fewer children, a drop of one-third; Ohio: 8,388 fewer children, a drop of 70%; Michigan: 4,310 fewer children, a drop of 18%.

What do these states have in common? These are Midwest manufacturing states that were hit relatively hard by the Great Recession. In addition, these are all states in which state-funded pre-K is less firmly established than in leading states such as Oklahoma. All three of these states were and are significantly below the national average of 26% of all 4-year olds enrolled in pre-K. Programs may be more politically vulnerable if a lower percentage of the population perceives direct benefits from the program.

In my home state of Michigan, 2008-2009 enrollment in state-funded pre-K was 19% of all 4-year olds. This was already significantly below the national average enrollment percentage in 2008-2009 of 25%.

As part of state budget cuts for the 2009-2010 year, Michigan cut funding in half for the portion of state pre-K funding that supported enrollment of at-risk children in private preschools. In addition, the state government gave K-12 districts the funding flexibility to repurpose their grants for pre-K to cover shortfalls in their general fund budgets for K-12.  This was a more hidden budget cut to overall pre-K through grade 12 funding.

In part as a result of these measures, Michigan enrollment of four-year-olds in state-funded pre-K declined from 19% of all four-year-olds in 2008-2009 to 16% of all four-year olds in 2009-2010. This puts Michigan even further behind national average enrollment percentages, which increased from 25% of all four-year-olds in 2008-2009 to 26% of all four-year-olds in 2009-2010.

Furthermore, these previous budget changes leave pre-K in Michigan even more vulnerable for the future.  Michigan K-12 education faces major funding cuts for the 2011-2012 school year. These funding cuts are likely to lead many districts to feel pressured to cut their support of pre-K. (State funding for pre-K in Michigan does not cover the full costs of running these programs. Local districts frequently supplement the state funds.)

For pre-K to thrive in states suffering economic challenges, there needs to be wider awareness that state investments in pre-K and other early childhood programs are essential parts of a state economic development strategy.

Furthermore, it is difficult to decouple pre-K funding from K-12 funding trends. True school reform includes expansion of productive new investments such as pre-K. Such school reform is difficult to undertake while the overall K-12 budget is being dramatically cut.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
This entry was posted in Early childhood programs. Bookmark the permalink.