Nation has taken "giant step backward" in preparing more children for kindergarten, says early childhood-education researcher.

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Associated Press

SEATTLE — Washington preschool programs that receive government dollars are among the best in the country but too few kids benefit from the $54 million the state spends on preschool each school year, according to a report released Tuesday.

Washington is one of the most generous states as far as per-child spending on early learning, but near the bottom in terms of access to preschool, according to the State Preschool Yearbook from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

About 8,000 kids participate in state funded preschool. Another 8,000 get special education before kindergarten and more than 11,000 are enrolled in the federally funded Head Start program. Together, the three programs educate about 20 percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds.

Those numbers have increased slightly over the past decade and over the past few years, in the midst of the economic downturn.

Washington serves about half the children who are eligible for subsidized preschool, according to Bette Hyde, director of the Washington Department of Early Learning. About 8,389 are being served this year and that number is up 365 from last year, she said.

Nationally, the dollars going to state preschool programs decreased by $60 million over the past few years while enrollment dipped and state funding was cut during the economic downturn.

“We’ve taken a giant step backward as a nation,” said Steve Barnett, director of National Institute for Early Education Research.

State dollars going to preschool have dropped to nearly where the nation was a decade ago, said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. About two-thirds of states have cut dollars for preschool in the past few years.

“We know these are very tough economic times, but there are smart ways and not-so-smart ways to cut funding,” Duncan said.

Washington state’s contribution per child dropped between the 2009-2010 school year and 2010-2011, but Hyde does not agree with the report’s assertion that the state is not making enough progress.

“In these incredibly tight economic times, we’ve added close to 400 slots,” she said. Planning for further expansion will continue, but there’s no money to pay for it at this time.

Hyde said lawmakers have talked about using the subsidized preschool program as a prototype for a much bigger program that would offer voluntary preschool to all Washington children, not just the disabled and kids from low income families.

The national organization that publishes this annual report sets 10 goals for creating a high quality preschool system: from low class sizes to requirements for teacher training. Washington is one of just 11 states that met nine or 10 of the benchmarks.

High quality preschool is defined as those programs with well-trained teachers who pay attention to the whole child and are instrumental in closing the achievement gap between poor and middle class kids by getting them ready to learn in kindergarten.

Barnett pointed out during a news briefing last week that an estimated 40 percent of kindergarten students are already behind their peers when they walk through the school door on the first day.

Those children are unlikely to ever catch up, said Duncan, who mentioned the 25 percent of American kids who drop out of high school and another large number who arrive on college campuses not academically prepared to take college math and other courses.

Since 1985, Washington has provided school readiness programs to 3- and 4-year-olds, mostly from poor families, in both public and private preschools.

In December, Washington state won another endorsement of its state preschool program.

Washington was one of nine states to win money from the federal government to expand its early learning initiatives. The $60 million will be spent mostly on a quality rating system for private preschool programs and expanding a kindergarten readiness assessment to cover more kids.

The goal of the Race to the Top early learning competition was to get more high needs children from birth to age 5 ready for kindergarten.