The pandemic eliminated a decade of enrollment progress in state-funded preschool programs with a 5.5% enrollment loss — of 229,384 4-year-olds — between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, according to The State of Preschool Report 2021, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research and Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

Additionally, state spending on pre-kindergarten (PK) programs fell in 2020-21 for the first time since 2014, according to a report from K12 Dive. Nearly $9 billion was spent on PK programs, an inflation-adjusted decrease of $254 million from the 2019-20 school year. But federal relief funding helped make up for the deficit, and some states even used emergency money to grow spending levels over the year before.

The 184-page State of Preschool report offers solutions to boost enrollment and funding, including small federal matching grants and state-led initiatives to expand quality preschool programs, particularly for children in low-income families and from underserved ethnic and racial groups.

The Data

State spending declined by an inflation-adjusted 3% in 2020-21 compared to the prior year. Yet when $440 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds is factored in, spending actually increased by $186 million. If all sources of spending — local, state and federal — are considered, state-funded preschool programs saw a 2.7% inflation-adjusted increase compared to 2019-20.

If PK programs were at full capacity in 2021, the average spending would have been $5,867.

The additional dollars helped states preserve program capacity in preparation for enrollments to rebound. Nine states enjoyed substantial increases in spending, topped by an $84 million increase in Maryland and a $78 million increase in New Jersey. Twenty-six states, however, suffered inflation-adjusted decreases in state preschool spending.

The pandemic had a particularly negative impact on early childhood special education, which saw a 16% decrease in enrollment, and on Head Start, which had an enrollment decrease of 33%.

Enrollment in state funded PK for 4-year-olds declined by 5% in 2021 from the prior year.

In addition to addressing funding and enrollment, the report raised concerns about the quality of pre-K programs. Only 11% of children attending state-funded PK programs are in programs that meet nine or all 10 of NIEER’s quality standard benchmarks. On the other hand, almost 40% of children in state funded PK are in programs meeting fewer than half of the benchmarks.

Other insights revealed in the report include:

  • Six states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and Washington) saw preschool enrollment increase in 2020-21.
  • Washington, D.C., and Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin served more than 50% of their 4-year-old populations. D.C. had the highest enrollment rate for 4 year-olds, at 84%, and it was the only one to enroll more than 50% of 3-year-olds. D.C. also spends the most at $19,228 per child.
  • Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming do not fund a PK program.