New National Data on Preschool Programs Particularly Important Due to COVID-19

Most state-funded pre-K programs, like most schools, are closed due to the coronavirus. But most states do not have the same state constitutional obligation to provide pre-K as they do for K-12 students, so pre-K programs can be particularly vulnerable to state budget cuts when tough economic times reduce state revenues. 

As states begin to face the fiscal and economic consequences of COVID-19, the National Institute for Early Education Research released its State Preschool Yearbook, which provides the most comprehensive and accurate information available on enrollment in, funding for, and features of state-funded pre-K programs.

Cover of the National Institute for Early Education Research 2019 State Preschool YearbookNIEER’s current report looks at data from the 2018-19 school year and finds that: 

  • State pre-K programs enrolled 1.63 million children in 2018-19. Most of these children (about 85%) are 4, with far fewer 3-year-olds served.  
  • The number of children served in state-funded pre-K increased slightly (by about 3%) from the 2017-18 to 2018-18 school year, with most of that increase for 4-year-olds. 
  • Taking into account Head Start and special education preschool, about 44% of 4-year-olds and 17% of 3-year-olds attend some type of publicly funded program.* This has stayed largely level even as state pre-K enrollment has increased, in part because some Head Start slots have shifted to serve infants and toddlers, particularly in places with high pre-K enrollment. 
  • Access to state pre-K varies widely by state: Only 10 states serve more than 50% of 4-year-olds and 5 serve 70% or more. Twelve states with preschool programs serve 10% or less of 4-year-olds, and six states have no state-funded pre-K. Only 7 states and the District of Columbia serve more than 10% of 3-year-olds. 

During and in the wake of the 2008 Recession, states cut spending on pre-K and other early childhood programs. While pre-K enrollment levels continued to grow, per-child funding decreased, as states sought to stretch less funding across more kids, with detrimental impacts on program quality. 

Given the economic impacts of COVID-19, which are likely to continue even after states begin relaxing current closures and stay-at-home orders, state governments may face even greater revenue declines. Federal stimulus funding will be essential to shore up state budgets and ensure continued provision of education and early childhood services — including pre-K and child care.

Two of the education funding streams in the CARES Act passed by Congress in March — the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — can be used to support pre-K and child care along with K-12 education (and in the case of GEER, higher education) programs, but don’t provide enough funding to meet growing needs. Further, governors, states, and school districts have discretion in whether or not they choose to use these funds for early care and education.

As Congress considers additional COVID response and stimulus legislation, it will be important to design this legislation in ways that support and sustain continued provision of early learning and development services for children ages 0-5, as well as K-12 schooling — and that such supports include child care and other early childhood programs serving infants and toddlers, in addition to pre-K. State advocates also have an important role to play in ensuring that states use federal funding to meet early care and education needs. 

NIEER also recommends that federal policymakers allow states that recently received federal Preschool Development Grants, which support birth-5 systems coordination, to redirect those funds to meet immediate needs in response to COVID-19. And it notes that state pre-K programs and the leaders who administer them will need to develop new guidance, policies, and resources for schools and programs to support learning for preschool-aged students during current and future closures, an age group that has often been overlooked in distance learning plans. 

Over time, the data that NIEER collects and reports can play a key role in tracking the extent to which states are maintaining commitments to early learning, as well as the impact of federal funds in helping them to do so. In order to respond effectively to current challenges and support the early care and education sector in recovery, state and local leaders need good data about supply, demand, and on-the-ground conditions facing early childhood programs. But such data is lacking in many states and communities. While the state-level data NIEER collects doesn’t meet that need, it does provide a consistent, independent benchmark by which to navigate and track trends over time in a field where the lack of useful data is more apparent and problematic than ever.  

* NIEER’s report focuses primarily on state-funded pre-K programs, in which states provide money to school districts or community-based child care programs to deliver early care and education to 3- and/or 4-year-olds, with accompanying quality and other requirements. And it also includes information on enrollment in Head Start and special education preschool programs, which also serve 3- and 4-year-olds, by state and nationally. However, these aren’t the only publicly funded programs, as some school districts and local governments have built their own pre-K programs in recent years. There is no consistent state or national data tracking the number of such programs or children served in them, though (another big data gap!), and state-funded pre-K remains the primary driver of public pre-K access. 

For other Bellwether blog posts on COVID-19, click here, or see a list of external resources on our website.