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Preschool programs not spared as strapped states cut spending

Early childhood education takes a hit, as states collectively decreased spending on preschool programs last year – for the first time since 2002, a new study finds.

By Ilana KowarskiContributor / April 26, 2011

Angie Clark, a preschool teacher, reads to a group of 4 and 5-year-old students, at Mitchell Elementary School, on March 29, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Steve Pope/AP

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For the first time since 2002, states collectively decreased spending on early childhood education last school year, meaning fewer preschoolers were admitted to subsidized programs in some states. Those findings, from a study released Tuesday, also said the cuts would have been more severe if not for federal stimulus money, as most states cut services to grapple with budget gaps.

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Overall per-pupil spending in preschools dipped to $4,028 last year – $114 lower than the previous year, and nearly $700 below the 2001-2002 level, according to "The State of Preschool 2010," issued by National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Though three states boosted preschool funding by more than 10 percent and two states – Alaska and Rhode Island – added preschool programs, such investment was the exception rather than the rule last year.

The findings come even as Congress considers proposals for steep cuts to Head Start and other early education programs. The NIEER study argues that state-funded preschools – many of which serve low-income families – are resource-strapped and deserve more funding rather than less, because of the long-term payoff in fewer dropouts, fewer teen parents, and a reduced criminal activity as teens or adults. It also backed the Obama administration’s proposal for an Early Learning Challenge Fund to encourage state spending on preschools.

In all, state funding for preschools dropped by nearly $30 million last year, the study showed. Nine states cut more than 10 percent of their preschools’ funding, 10 states have no state-funded preschools whatsoever, and – of the 40 states with preschool programs – 19 have reduced per-pupil spending.

This dip in preschool funding makes it difficult to improve the quality of early childhood education, which the study says is already low. Five states (Alaska, Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Rhode Island) have preschool programs that met all 10 of NIEER’s quality benchmarks regarding teacher credentials, class sizes, and other factors believed to influence the classroom experience.

“The funding situation for pre-K may get worse even as the economy slowly recovers,” the study authors write. “Federal funds to help states weather the recession are now gone.”

The federal government spent $49.3 million to subsidize state-funded preschools last year, yet these programs have fewer resources than before, because of cutbacks in local support.

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