Special Report

States With the Best and Worst Early Education

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5. Connecticut
> Share of 3-4 yr. olds enrolled in pre-K: 60.7% (3rd highest)
> Annual state pre-K spending: $126.0 million (15th highest)
> State pre-K spending per pre-K student: $8,478 (13th highest)
> 4th graders proficient in reading: 40.1% (4th highest); math: 45.0% (12th highest)

Connecticut ranks among the top five states for early childhood education, partially because of high preschool enrollment. The state is one of only three in the country where more than 60% of 3- and 4-year-old children are in a pre-K program.

The state’s high enrollment figures are partially explained by the three state-funded pre-K programs: School Readiness Program, Child Day Care Contracts, and Smart Start — each of which falls under the purview of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood. These programs are also well established. With the exception of Smart Start, which was founded in 2014, Connecticut’s early childhood programs are decades old. Children in Connecticut are far more likely to attend a publicly funded pre-K program than a private program.

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4. Delaware
> Share of 3-4 yr. olds enrolled in pre-K: 53.0% (9th highest)
> Annual state pre-K spending: $6.1 million (8th lowest)
> State pre-K spending per pre-K student: $7,277 (20th highest)
> 4th graders proficient in reading: 32.5% (16th lowest); math: 39.1% (20th lowest)

Delaware is one of a dozen states where over half of all 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in a pre-K program. The high enrollment is partially attributable to a robust state-run pre-k program. Delaware began providing early childhood education to 4-year-olds eligible for the federal Head Start program in 1994 through the Delaware Early Childhood Assistance Program. The program expanded eligibility to 3-year-olds in 2017.

State-run ECE programs in Delaware have higher operating standards than in most states, as they meet nearly every quality standard established by NIEER.

3. Rhode Island
> Share of 3-4 yr. olds enrolled in pre-K: 47.9% (20th highest)
> Annual state pre-K spending: $13.8 million (13th lowest)
> State pre-K spending per pre-K student: $10,650 (2nd highest)
> 4th graders proficient in reading: 35.4% (22nd highest); math: 40.5% (24th highest)

Rhode Island ranks as the third best state for early childhood education. The state’s high ranking is partially attributable to early childhood education funding. Pre-K spending in Rhode Island totaled $10,650 per student in 2020, more than every state other than New Jersey.

Rhode Island’s state-funded pre-K program has been in operation for over a decade, and enrollment is determined by lottery. The program meets nearly every quality benchmark established by NIEER.

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2. Vermont
> Share of 3-4 yr. olds enrolled in pre-K: 68.3% (the highest)
> Annual state pre-K spending: $60.1 million (21st lowest)
> State pre-K spending per pre-K student: $7,821 (18th highest)
> 4th graders proficient in reading: 37.1% (13th highest); math: 38.8% (17th lowest)

Early childhood education in Vermont ranks second highest in the United States, trailing only New Jersey. An estimated 68.3% of 3- and 4-year-olds in Vermont are enrolled in a pre-K program, the largest share of any state. While the state has had some early childhood education programs for decades, it was not until 2014 that all public school districts in Vermont were required to offer universal pre-K for all 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds not enrolled in kindergarten for at least 10 hours per week, 35 weeks per year.

Vermont also has a robust pre-K quality monitoring system and meets most quality benchmarks established by NIEER.

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1. New Jersey
> Share of 3-4 yr. olds enrolled in pre-K: 64.0% (2nd highest)
> Annual state pre-K spending: $781.5 million (4th highest)
> State pre-K spending per pre-K student: $14,103 (the highest)
> 4th graders proficient in reading: 41.9% (2nd highest); math: 48.2% (3rd highest)

No state invests more in early childhood education per student than New Jersey. Pre-K spending in the state totaled $14,103 per pupil in 2020, more than double the nationwide average. Children in New Jersey are also more likely than most American children to be enrolled in preschool. An estimated 64.0% of 3- and 4-year-olds in New Jersey are in a pre-K program, the second largest share of any state.

New Jersey’s top ranking is also due in part to standardized test scores of older children that may reflect favorably on the quality of early childhood education. A reported 41.9% of fourth graders in the state are proficient in reading, and 48.2% are proficient in math, the second and third highest share among states, respectively.