The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released a new report today highlighting the growing inequality among states in access to high-quality public preschool. While many states have made significant gains in enrollment and spending, others have done very little to boost quality early childhood programs across the country.

The NIEER research team used data from the 2015-16 school year, reviewing 43 states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam on their public funded preschool programs, including spending and quality of programs.

To compare states, NIEER accessed 10 different quality standard benchmarks, such as presence of a qualified teacher and assistant, small class size, and low teacher-to-student ratio. Alabama, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and West Virginia were the only state programs that met all 10 currents standards with consistent funding levels. However, nine states met fewer than half the standards and seven states currently do not fund public preschool.

“States meeting all current benchmarks should be proud of their accomplishments,” said NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett Ph.D. in a statement. “But simply meeting the benchmarks does not guarantee children are receiving a high-quality classroom experience. That’s why we’ve introduced major revisions to our assessment of state policies, raising the bar for what it means to support pre-K quality.”

Other highlights from the report include: 

  • State-funded preschool program enrollment reached an all-time high, serving 1.5 million children. The District of Columbia, Florida, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin topped the charts in terms of highest enrollment among 4-year olds, all serving more than 70 percent of eligible children in their respective states.
  • Overall state funding for preschool rose 8 percent to $7.4 billion, a $564 million increase across states. State funding per child increased 5 percent to $4,976, exceeding pre-recession levels for the first time.
  • Eighteen states received federally funded Preschool Development Grants (PDGs) to support enrollment for high-quality preschool. Without PDGs, progress on enrollment and quality could have been much more limited.

Access is simply not enough. States must do more to ensure high-quality programs. Research shows those who experience high-quality early care and learning are more prepared when they enter school, and have better education, health, social and economic outcomes in life – increasing their productivity and reducing the need for spending later on.

To learn more, read NIEER’s annual State of Preschool Yearbook here.