Why Access and Quality Matter in Early Education Programs

teacher and young studentAs attention, especially at the federal level, continues to focus on the importance of increasing both quality and access to early childhood care and education programs, states are struggling with how to best address the needs of young children and their families. We know that while there are young children across the country being served in state-funded pre-K or child care programs, there are many more children who only have access to low-quality programs, or to no program at all.

A new report puts a spotlight on the state of preschool in the U.S. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released The State of Preschool 2013 last week. It is an annual report that profiles state-funded pre-K programs and evaluates them on access, funding, and quality. The report highlights the need for states to continue to work on increasing access and spending for their state pre-K programs, as well as raise their quality standards to ensure that children are prepared to succeed. The State of Preschool 2013 found that enrollment in state pre-K programs decreased by a little over 9,000 children nationwide. While this decrease may be modest, it is the first decline in access seen in over a decade and could be an indicator that access to state pre-K programs has hit a plateau or worse, has begun to decline. One bright spot revealed in the report was a slight increase in funding of $36 per child in state spending for the 2012-2013 year, following several years of large cuts in state pre-K programs.

Other key findings from the report included:

  • Twenty states increased enrollment, while 11 states reduced enrollment.
  • Slightly over 1.3 million children attended state pre-K programs, 1.1 million of them at age 4. They account for four percent of 3-year-olds and 28 percent of 4-year-olds in the country.
  • One state pre-K program, Ohio, improved in quality, while two programs, Arizona and Missouri, decreased in quality.
  • For the first time, every state-funded pre-K program had comprehensive early learning standards, which is one of the quality standards in the NIEER report.
  • Total state funding for pre-K programs increased by $30 million in real dollars, about a 1 percent increase.

While over 1.3 million children attended state pre-K programs in 2012-2013, this is small in comparison to the nearly 11 million children under the age of 5 who attend some form of child care (center, preschool, Head Start, family child care, grandparent, relative, and non relative) on a weekly basis. A state fact sheet issued last year by Child Care Aware highlights that child care can be hard for families to find, challenging to afford, and of only average quality. One of the primary barriers families face in accessing care is cost. The cost of care can vary widely, depending on type of care and location. Waiting lists to receive a subsidy can be so long, they can in effect make child care out of reach. Child care subsidies are an important lever states can use by linking access to quality through tiered reimbursement policies. Additionally, an analysis of state child care regulations and standards determined that more needs to be done to improve basic program requirements and oversight. One proposed rule change by the Office of Child Care is to bolster health and safety requirements, increase quality, and strengthen oversight standards in child care programs serving children receiving subsidies.

Greater access and higher quality have to go hand in hand. One without the other benefits neither children nor families.

Dale Epstein, Senior Research Scientist
Jennifer Cleveland, Senior Research Analyst

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