At Helios Education Foundation, we believe becoming successful in postsecondary education is rooted in having an enriching, foundational early learning experience. We also know that quality early learning experiences are best-provided in early learning settings that meet quality standards based on data and benchmarks.
The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) recently released its annual State of Preschool Report, including state profiles and rankings demonstrating progress on state-funded pre-kindergarten access, funding, and quality. This year’s report provides a snapshot of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the early childhood education landscape. At the national level, the following five key findings were highlighted in the report:
- Even prior to the pandemic, student enrollment in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs decelerated. And as a whole, average state spending increased only 3% from 2018-19 to 2019-2020.
- COVID-19 has impacted both pre-K enrollment and funding, and significant setbacks to progress in recent years is anticipated. For example, many caregivers chose not to enroll their children in pre-K due to pandemic-related concerns. If future preschool funding is based on lower enrollment during the pandemic (2020-2021 enrollment numbers), it is likely many states will encounter funding challenges when attendance rebounds.
- Overall, in states that declined in access, standards, and/or funding, inequitable access to high-quality preschool became further pronounced. Children from low-income and minority backgrounds are most likely to be adversely impacted.
- Only five states provided sufficient resources to support high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten programs. As a result, many children from low-income families are unable to access the high-quality early learning environments they critically need. According to NIEER, $30 billion is needed to expand access to all 3 and 4-year-olds from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Now more than ever, investment in high-quality early childhood education is crucial, with an emphasis on supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the short-term, NIEER recommends states invest federal rescue and recovery dollars in high-quality preschool programs. To build a sustainable future, NIEER envisions a unitary pre-kindergarten system in which the federal government funds a portion of the costs.
State Profiles: Arizona
At the state level, 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 from the previous 2018-19 year.
Ranked 32nd in the nation, Arizona spent an average of $3686 per child in 2019-2020- a decrease of $386 from the previous year (inflation adjusted). This is approximately $1,813 less than the national average. Additionally, Arizona ranked 39th 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 pre-kindergarten enrollment declined in 2019-2020 from the previous year, with the state ranking 25th in the nation for state-funded pre-kindergarten access to three-year-olds and 45th for four-year-olds (two and three percent of the eligible population, respectively). Arizona’s three-year-old access ranking fell one spot from the previous year and two spots for four-year-olds.
In Arizona, 51% of Arizona children reside in low-income households. Of these children, over 60,000 do not have access to a high-quality preschool setting.
Quality: Only three of ten quality benchmarks were met.
Arizona continues to meet only 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.
Due to 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.
State Profiles: Florida
Pre-pandemic, Florida saw a decrease in enrollment and a small increase in inflation-adjusted spending. Program quality standards remained low. Now is the time for a renewed commitment to high-quality pre-K for all, beginning with those in the lowest income families.
Resources: Pre-K state funding increase from the previous 2018 – 2019 year.
Ranked 43rd in the nation, Florida spent $2,401 per child in 2019-2020, up $115 from 2018-2019, adjusted for inflation. This is approximately $3,928 less than the national average. Florida also ranked 43rd in the nation on all reported spending on pre-K (i.e., local, state, and federal funding).
Access: While Florida is near the top for access for four-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K, the number of enrolled three-year-olds creates opportunities for improvement.
Florida preschool enrolled 166,726 children in 2019-2020, a decrease of 6,907 children from the prior year. Florida ranked 4th in access for four-year-olds, remaining in the same ranking position as the previous year. The state ranked 43rd in access for three-year-olds. While Florida did not offer any access to state-funded pre-k for three-year-olds, the numbers are skewed, since some three-year-olds appear in data for Head Start.
Quality: Only two of ten quality benchmarks were met.
Florida continues to meet only two of ten quality benchmarks for its state-funded pre-kindergarten programs. Areas for improvement include teacher training and credential requirements, curriculum supports, and lower staff to student ratios.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida needs to act quickly to offset the effects of on young children. While Florida ranks near the top of states in pre-K enrollment of 4-year-olds, it’s at the bottom for spending per child and quality standards. By reinvesting in high-quality early learning and increasing access for younger children, Florida can ensure its youth are prepared to learn when they enter kindergarten and 1st grade, ensuring further success as they continue their education.