A new survey of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs finds a wide disparity in the availability of early education nationwide, as enrollment figures fell for the first time in over a decade.
The Education Department study showed some shining examples of enrollment and some veritable black holes, depending on where toddlers live. Among the District of Columbia's 4-year-olds, for example, state-funded pre-K enrollment rates exceeded 90 percent in 2012-2013. In Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont the rates topped 70 percent. Then there are 10 states with no program at all.
The finding that took policymakers aback, however, was a slight contraction in the total number of children enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs. Despite a year of widespread campaigning on the issue and increased funding per pupil, enrollment across the country fell by 9,200 students in the 2012 to 2013 school year, the first contraction in more than a decade. Overall, about 28% of 4-year-olds in the U.S. attended public pre-school last year.
"We were very surprised," said Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, who conducted the study in collaboration with the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the data a "reminder of how much work we still have to do to ensure that every child gets a running start." President Obama proposed working with states to make pre-K education available to every child in the U.S. in his State of the Union speech last year, but Congress has yet to act on the proposals.