States With the Best and Worst Early Education

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Detailed Findings & Methodology

Some states are investing in the potential upside associated with accessible, high quality, pre-K programs. States like Michigan and West Virginia spend more on pre-K than the typical state, and partially as a result, hold their pre-K programs to higher standards. Both Michigan and West Virginia meet several quality benchmarks, including: child health screenings, minimum educational attainment requirements for teachers, limits on class sizes, and standards for student-teacher ratios.

Greater pre-K funding does not only improve quality, but can also improve accessibility. Nine of the 15 states with above-average pre-K spending per child also have above-average enrollment rates.

However, funding public pre-K for an entire state is no small investment, and as a result, such efforts are often met with considerable resistance. Six states — Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming — have no publicly funded pre-K programs. Among them, only New Hampshire has higher than average pre-K enrollment.

Still, while spending can improve quality and accessibility of pre-K programs, monetary investment does not always guarantee better outcomes. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, explained that while both high standards and adequate funding are necessary, they are not sufficient. “You can have enough money, but not use it well, [and] you can have high standards but not enough money to do it well,” Barnett said.

While every child can potentially benefit from pre-K education, the potential upside of pre-K enrollment is far greater for certain demographics. “The benefits of the programs are considered to be especially important for low-income and disadvantaged kids who may not have strong preparation for elementary school otherwise,” Lloyd said.

Unfortunately, children who stand to gain the most from early childhood education are often the least likely be enrolled. “We see that children from low-income families are less likely to attend preschool. Children from the most affluent households have the highest rates of preschool participation,” Lloyd said.

To identify the best and worst states for early education, 24/7 Wall St. created an index using five different measures of early education quality: annual per-child pre-kindergarten spending for 3- to 4-years old, the percentage of fourth graders deemed not proficient in reading, the percentage of 3- to 4-year olds enrolled in preschool, the average monthly percentage of families with children under 18 receiving Child Care Development Fund Subsidies, and whether or not states met 10 policy benchmarks.

Per-pupil spending for children ages 3- to 4-years old was calculated using the state total population for those ages, from the U.S Census’ American Community Survey, and the total state spending figures for pre-kindergarten education came from the Education Commission of the States for 2016-2017. The percentage of fourth graders deemed non-proficient in reading, as well as the percentage of children ages 3- to 4-years old enrolled in pre-K, comes from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2017 Kids Count Databook. The percentage of children ages 3- to 4-years old enrolled in pre-K, and the average monthly percentage of families with children under 18 receiving CCDF subsidies comes from the National Center for Children in Poverty for 2015, the most recent year of data available. The 10 policy standards we used in our index were identified by policy advocacy group The National Institute for Early Education Research’s “The State of Early Education 2017” report. States ranked better if they met all 10 quality standards, and worse if they met zero. At the request of NIEER, we did not factor in quality metrics for states that had met at least one quality standard, but less than 10.