By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Enrollment in U.S. preschools stalled over the past year as states recovering from the recent recession struggle to fund early education for the nation's youngest students, researchers said.
In a report released on Monday, education experts pointed to a record drop of more than half a billion dollars in state funding in the 2011-2012 school year from the prior year.
The report also found that for the first time in a decade, the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled did not grow. Overall, 1.3 million children attended state-run preschools in 2011-2012. (For a graphic about the report, see http://link.reuters.com/duc77t)
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters he is concerned that across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration that started last month will worsen state education budgets.
"We have some hard work to do," Duncan said at a news conference to unveil the report.
The findings from Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research come as the Obama administration is pushing its proposal to expand access to early learning.
At the time of the report, 10 states did not offer preschool, although Mississippi enacted a new law earlier this month supporting preschool education.
President Barack Obama's plan calls for a federal-state plan to enroll 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families in preschools while providing additional grants to states to expand access to other middle class families.
Early education is one area that both Democrats and Republicans generally support, although clashes arise over government's role and funding.
FEW STATES MEET BENCHMARKS
Monday's report highlights the disparities not only in access to available preschool programs across various states but also in their quality.
"Not only are we stalled, but it really matters what your zip code is," said Steven Barnett, who directs the Rutgers-based institute.
Few states met the institute's 10 benchmarks to assess quality such as teacher training, learning standards and class size, in large part due to funding cuts, the report said.
States that fared the best include Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina and Rhode Island, it said, while California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Vermont met the fewest quality standards.
Overall, state funding per child fell by more than $400 to $3,841 per child on average in 2011-2012, the first year such funding dropped below $4,000 per student, the report said.
Even though the majority of states offer some sort of preschool program for low-income families, few states offer so-called "universal preschool" for all children. Parents whose incomes are too high to qualify for state-run programs must pay out-of-pocket for private ones or find other childcare options.
Under Obama's plan, the federal government would spend $75 billion over 10 years to widen access to state programs for lower-income families. It also seeks to encourage states to broaden access so middle class families could opt in, calling for $750 million in such grants under his 2014 budget proposal.
Despite the president's push, his plan has moved little in Congress, where lawmakers have been focused on immigration, the budget and other issues. Cigarette makers are also pushing back on the plan, which is to be funded by a new tax on tobacco products.
Advocates say reaching 3- and 4-year-olds can help boost students' development and increase their competitiveness in the job market long-term while reducing other costs by curbing demand for welfare, jails and other government services.
But some conservatives and other critics have questioned the federal government's effectiveness in early childhood work, raising concerns over another federally funded program for low-income 3- to 5-year-olds, Head Start.
Still, additional federal funds could help boost cash-strapped states that have cut back on preschool funding since federal stimulus monies ran out, the report said.
"As states emerge from the recession, pre-K continues to suffer," researches wrote, adding that the number of needy families has continued to rise.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)