Enrollment in a high-quality pre-kindergarten program has significant implications for learning and development, increasing a child’s odds of succeeding in school and life. According to the 2019 State of Preschool Report recently released by the National Institute for Early Education Research, the United States’ progress in providing access to state-funded pre-K programs to our nation’s three and four-year-olds continues to be slow, lagging behind attendance rates in many other developed countries. Furthermore, achieving standards of quality in state-funded preschool programs continues to be an opportunity for improvement across many states.
Despite the well-documented benefits of attending a high-quality early childhood education program, states reduced pre-K funding as a consequence of the Great Recession resulting in decreased enrollment rates and program quality. To date, many of these states have not restored cuts to pre-recession levels. With the current economic strain and uncertainty related to the COVID-19 pandemic, long-term challenges related to funding, access and quality are at risk of becoming even more pronounced.
In addition to the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 crisis, some states, including Arizona, may face additional difficulties in serving children in high-quality prekindergarten programs, particularly those from low-income families. In 2018, federal Preschool Development Grant (PDG) funding in Arizona ended with no state sustainability plan in place. In Arizona, these funds had been used to create new seats in state-funded prekindergarten programs and enhance the quality of some existing state-funded preschool seats for income-eligible families. In 2019, federal changes were made to the program and states had the opportunity to apply for the PDG Birth-5 Grant, with a focus on systems building and strategic planning. Unfortunately, Arizona was not awarded this funding. Despite these challenges, the Arizona legislature recognizes the importance of developing a sustainability plan to support access to high-quality preschool programs.
The State of Preschool Report provides both a synopsis of the contextual climate of state-funded preschool as well as individual state profiles and rankings. Arizona’s performance continues to demonstrate room for improvement across all areas, including pre-K resources, access and quality.
Resources: Pre-K state funding decreased slightly from the previous 2017-2018 year.
Ranked 29th in the nation, Arizona spent an average of $4,013 per child in 2018-2019 - a decrease of $185 from the previous year (inflation adjusted). This is approximately $1,361 less than the national average. Additionally, Arizona ranked 36th in the nation for all reported spending on pre-K (i.e., local, state, and federal funding).
Access: The relatively small percentage of eligible three and four-year olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K indicates an opportunity for increased access.
Arizona ranked 24th in the nation for state-funded pre-kindergarten access to three-year-olds and 43rd for four-year-olds (two and four percent of the eligible population, respectively). Arizona’s three-year-old access ranking fell three spots from the previous year and two spots for four-year-olds.
Quality: Only three of ten quality benchmarks were met.
Arizona met three of ten quality benchmarks for its state-funded pre-kindergarten programs. Areas for improvement include teacher training and credential requirements, smaller class sizes and lower staff to student ratios.
Click here to see the most recent State of Preschool report.
In light of recent challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, bipartisan support is needed more than ever to support pre-K programs and ensure equitable access to high-quality programs. Ensuring young children have access to quality learning environments, regardless of race, income, or geography, provides many proven individual and societal benefits. By prioritizing early childhood education funding, access and quality, the state of Arizona will increase student success across the education continuum and beyond.