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.