WASHINGTON — State funding for prekindergarten programs had its largest drop ever last year and states are now spending less per child than they did a decade ago, according to a report released Monday.
The report also found that more than a half million of those preschool students are in programs that don’t even meet standards suggested by industry experts that would qualify for federal dollars.
Those findings — combined with Congress’ reluctance to spend new dollars — complicate President Obama’s effort to expand pre-K programs across the country. While Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius continue to promote the president’s proposal, researchers say existing programs are inadequate, and until their shortcomings are fixed there is little desire by lawmakers to get behind Obama’s call for more preschool.
“The state of preschool was a state of emergency,” said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, which produced the report.
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During his State of the Union speech, Obama proposed a federal-state partnership that would dramatically expand options for families with young children. Obama’s plan would fund public preschool for any 4-year-old whose family income was below twice the federal poverty rate.
If it were in place this year, the plan would allow a family of four with two children to enroll students in a pre-K program if the family earned less than $46,566.
Students from families who earn more could participate, but their parents would have to pay tuition based on their income. Eventually, 3-year-old students would be part of the program, too.
Obama proposed paying for this expansion by almost doubling the federal tax on cigarettes, to $1.95 per pack. But the plan faces an uphill climb, with the tobacco industry opposing the tax that would pay for it and lawmakers from tobacco-producing states also skeptical.
States spent about $5.1 billion on pre-K programs in 2011-12, the most recent school year, researchers wrote in the report.
Per-student funding for existing programs during that year dropped to an average of $3,841 for each student. Adjusted for inflation, per-student funding has been cut by more than $1,000 during the last decade.
Yet nationwide, the amounts were widely varied. The District of Columbia spent almost $14,000 on every child in its program while Colorado, South Carolina and Nebraska spent less than $2,000 per child.
“Whether you get a quality preschool program does depend on what ZIP code you are in,” Barnett said.