The State of Preschool 2014: Our Nation Needs a New Sense of Urgency

The funding of pre-K education is higher among states nationwide, but early childhood education programs have yet to recover from $500 billion in cuts in 2011-12.

By W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D. 

In the United States – unlike most developed countries, or even the more prosperous cities in China – access to good preschool education depends on where you live. That is why National Institute for Early Education Research started reporting on the State of Preschool 12 years ago and continues to track enrollment, quality standards and funding for state-funded preschool education each year.

This year’s report on the 2013-14 school year found that enrollment and funding both inched up nationally so that 29 percent of 4-year-olds are served along with 4 percent of 3-year-olds. State spending rose $116 million to nearly $5.6 billion. And quality standards improved in seven state programs. 

Though all good news, especially after the setbacks from the Great Recession, these figures reflect painfully slow progress. At last year’s growth rate, it will take another 75 years before states enroll even half of all 4-year-olds in preschool. The nation needs a greater sense of urgency about educating our young children.  Quality pre-K is one of the best investments of public dollars and essential for offering equal opportunity to future generations. Unfortunately, it remains out of reach for too many American children.

Remarkable Progress in Some States

More positively, our report identifies states that are real champions for young children. Oklahoma and the District of Columbia already offered every child high quality preschool. In 2014, states from Alabama to West Virginia – with Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico and Vermont in between – made remarkable pre-K progress. For example, Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the legislature added more than $60 million to pre-K, half the national increase. In Vermont, Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin and the state’s legislators pushed Vermont into first place among the states for enrollment. A particular standout this year is Mississippi, which in 2014 became the first state without any pre-K to launch a new program.

I am very hopeful that other states will follow. Of the nine states without pre-K programs in 2013-14, two passed new programs this year – Hawaii and North Dakota – while a third (Indiana) created a pilot preschool program.  At the urging of Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas is moving forward legislation that would raise pre-K quality in Texas, which enrolls half of its 4-year-olds under the nation’s weakest standards. 

Business leadership is one reason behind the movement to offer more children a good preschool education and an important source of my optimism. Governors in two states that meet all 10 of our benchmarks for quality standards – Alabama and Mississippi – have both acknowledged the importance of business community support.

State Goals and Federal Incentives

I suggest the following as ways to improve early education. First, all states should set a goal to serve all 4-year-olds in high quality pre-K within 10 years. Many states could reach this goal more quickly, but every state can do this in a decade. Second, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that every preschool teacher have a BA degree and specialized training in early childhood education. States should set a goal to have a fully qualified pre-K teacher in every classroom within five years. Finally, the federal government should offer financial incentives for states to set and meet these goals, and it should reform its own programs - child care subsidies and Head Start – to more directly support and integrate with state funded pre-K at the same high standards.

Few public investments have the solid evidence base behind them that exists for quality pre-K.  I published my first paper on the high economic returns to public pre-K 30 years ago. The evidence has continued to pile up since. This year more than 1,200 researchers signed an open letter to the public and policy makers saying there is a broad scientific consensus that “Access to quality early childhood education is essential” and that “early learning can benefit middle-class children as well as disadvantaged children.”

The United States is the strongest nation on earth. We can provide every child with a good early education. If we want to stay the strongest nation on earth, we will provide every child with a good early education. Quality preschool is not a cure all, but is an essential part of education for success in the 21st century.  

W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D., is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research based at Rutgers University.

See how your state fared in NIEER’s 2014 State of Preschool rankings at

Learn more about Grow Up Great, PNC’s early childhood education program.

Steve Barnett supports financial incentives for states to meet goals 

There is a great deal more work to be done. If we expect meaningful impact before today’s young children have their own kids, the public will have to demand that their elected officials set realistic goals and stay with them.