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Pre-K programs take biggest state funding hit ever

Pre-K study finds that states' total spending on early childhood education dropped by more than $400 per pupil for the 2011-12 school year – and about $1,100 per pupil over a decade.

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Bryan Calvario (r.) and Jeramia Smith from the Anderson Grove Head Start program in Caledonia, Miss., ring hand bells to accompany patriotic songs at a Feb. 26 rally at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., by early childhood education supporters, who called for support of the Mississippi Pre K Collaborative Act.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP/File

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The 2011-12 school year was not a good one for pre-K funding, for enrollment, or for quality, according to a major new survey.

States' funding overall dropped by more than half a billion dollars – its biggest one-year drop ever. After a decade of growth, enrollment in state-funded pre-K programs stalled. State funding per child fell by more than $400; counting previous drops, state per-pupil spending decreased by more than $1,100 over the prior decade. And quality also slipped in a number of state programs.

“What was surprising was not that the recession hurt [pre-K programs], but that it hurt so much,” says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, which released the annual “State of Preschool” 2012 yearbook Monday. “The one indicator that increased was inequality, because some states have continued to move ahead, while other states are moving backwards.”

The report comes at a time when early childhood education is getting more attention than ever, at least at the federal level. In his State of the Union message, President Obama highlighted the importance of quality pre-K and urged a major expansion.

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” Mr. Obama said in his speech. In his budget, he requested $75 billion over 10 years to help states dramatically expand preschool options for low-income children.

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