Downturn could spell trouble for pre-K classes

/ Source: The Associated Press

Preschool enrollment is up and spending on state pre-K programs is up, too — but the economic downturn could spell trouble for the nation's youngest schoolchildren, says a report being released Wednesday.

At least nine states, it says, are likely to make cuts to pre-kindergarten programs, including some of the biggest — California, Florida and New York. Enrollment cuts and delaying expansion plans are some of the steps that states are considering, said one of the study's authors, Steve Barnett, director at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

"A federal initiative is needed to support early learning and development," Barnett said.

The institute is urging the federal government to match state spending with up to $2,500 for every additional child enrolled in state pre-K programs, as a way to grow preschool so that all of the nation's 4-year-olds can have access by 2020.

Majority of 4-year-olds attend preschool
Currently, more than 80 percent of all 4-year-olds attend some kind of preschool program, according to the report. About half of those go to a public program, either state pre-K, Head Start or special education. The other half attend private programs.

Overall, the study found healthy progress among the states in expanding enrollment, with more than 1.1 million children in state-funded preschool education for the 2007-2008 school year.

Oklahoma has nearly 90 percent of its 4-year-olds in a public education program, the best enrollment ranking, the study said.

At least seven other states — Florida, Georgia, Vermont, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and New York — have more than half of 4-year-olds attending some type of a public preschool program.

The researchers also ranked the quality of the programs, looking at 10 benchmarks such as class size, teacher-to-child ratios and whether the teacher has a bachelor's degree.

North Carolina and Alabama were the only two states that met all 10 benchmarks. Louisiana, Maryland, Arkansas, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Washington met nine of the 10 standards, said the report.