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District’s Pre-K Program Continues to Lead the Nation

Thursday, May 12, 2016
Annual report released today ranks DC at the top in funding, enrollment

Fred Lewis
(202) 412-2167
[email protected]

The District of Columbia led the nation in providing access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programming during the 2014-15 school year, according to an annual report released today by the nonpartisan National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.

The District ranked first in the nation for the third consecutive school year in pre-K per-child state spending ($16,431), far surpassing the national average of $4,489, and in enrollment of eligible 3-year-olds (64 percent) and 4-year-olds (86 percent), according to NIEER’s “The State of Preschool 2015: State Preschool Yearbook.” The report, which has been produced annually since 2003 and has included the District since 2012, contains objective state-by-state profiles and rankings based on NIEER’s quality standard benchmarks.

“The District recognizes that its economic future depends on early investment in its youngest citizens and is doing something about it,” said NIEER Director Steve Barnett. “Ensuring that every child has access to high-quality preschool can pave the way for their success in school, on the job, and in District communities. We’ve seen substantial progress in the District in recent years.”

Pre-K enrollment in the District was up by 186 children in the 2014-15 school year for a total 12,612 children. In the 2014-15 school year, the District ranked as one of 10 states to increase pre-K funding by more than $10 million, with a $13.3 million, or 7 percent, increase after adjusting for inflation. The District also maintained consistent progress in terms of quality, meeting nine of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality standards that include the presence of a qualified instructor, class size, teacher-to-student ratio, presence of an assistant, and length of instruction per day. 

For the first year, NIEER analyzed states’ early education workforce and dual language learner (DLL) policies, which highlights the supports the District pre-K program provides to DLL children, including offering recruitment and enrollment materials in a variety of languages; collecting data on home language, ethnicity, and migrant status of children enrolled in the program; and using a variety of developmental screenings and assessments to identify children as DLL and develop individualized supports.

With the passage of the Pre-K Enhancement and Expansion Act of 2008, which called for universal pre-K by 2014, the District elevated early learning as a centerpiece of the District’s education reform efforts. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) administers public pre-K programming in the District in a three-sector approach – DCPS, public charter schools and community-based organizations – and provides a high level of funding from a variety of sources.

“High-quality pre-K continues to be a key education reform driver in the District of Columbia and we are proud to have a universal system that respects parent choice and needs,” said Elizabeth Groginsky, assistant superintendent of OSSE’s Division of Early Learning, which oversees the District’s public pre-K program.

District of Columbia results in NIEER’s report mirror those of OSSE’s 2015 report “The State of Pre-K in the District of Columbia,” which describes how the District has supported rigorous efforts to ensure that all 3- and 4-year-olds have access to high-quality early learning. In 2015, the second year of the District’s use of a common assessment of quality environments and instruction, the District’s pre-K programs collectively improved across all measures of quality when compared to average scores from 2014.

In 2015, most pre-K classrooms across the District provided high-quality environments that were supportive of children’s social-emotional development and effectively maximized learning time, as determined by the Classroom Assessment Scoring System Pre-K® (CLASS). The District also launched an enhanced Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) and has launched the pre-K enhancement and expansion grants funding process to increase the number of children who have access to high-quality pre-K in community-based settings.

The District piloted the Early Development Instrument (EDI), which provides a neighborhood-level snapshot of children’s health, development, and school readiness. OSSE will be more broadly implementing the results of the EDI in 2016 in partnership with local education agencies (LEAs) and community-based organizations. 

NIEER’s report for the 2014-15 school year notes that although the District and New York have made significant progress through a concerted effort to increase enrollment and funding and improve quality, progress is slow and uneven nationally. Many 3- and 4-year-olds across the nation still lack access to high-quality preschool education despite modest gains in enrollment, quality, and funding.

Quality standards are particularly low in some of the nation’s largest states, such as California, Florida and Texas. Despite the relatively good news this year, the rate of progress is so slow that it will take 150 years for the nation to reach 75 percent enrollment in state pre-K even at age 4.

“The State of Preschool” report for the 2014-15 school year indicates that urgent action is needed from lawmakers at all levels of government to ensure that every child – particularly those from low-income families – have access to high-quality early education.

The report finds that for the nation as a whole, total state spending on pre-K programs increased by 10 percent, or $553 million, since the previous year, bringing state spending in the 2014-15 school year to more than $6.2 billion. The number of children served by state-funded pre-K increased by 37,167 in the 2014-15 school year, bringing the total to almost 1.4 million children – the largest number of children ever served by state-funded pre-K. With an average rate of $4,489, states also made one of the most significant increases in spending per child in recent history.

Despite these gains, the report’s findings underscore that those states like California, Florida and Texas with the largest populations of young children are falling behind — they were among the states that met the fewest quality standards benchmarks, and Texas and Florida also reduced enrollment and spending in the 2014-15 school year. Nationally, enrollment has risen by just 1 percentage point for both 4- and 3-year-olds over five years. The sluggish pace of change disproportionately impacts low-income families.

“We’re encouraged to see several states increasing in enrollment and improving quality, but access to high-quality pre-K in the United States remains low and highly unequal,” said Barnett. “Expanding access to quality pre-K programs is one of the best investments we can make, and it’s critical that we raise and standardize salaries for early education teachers and have strong dual language learner policies in states with large Hispanic populations. State governments should increase and stabilize funding for pre-K and raise standards for the benefit of all children.”

For more information on “The State of Preschool 2015” yearbook and detailed state-by-state breakdowns on quality benchmarks, enrollment and funding, please click here.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy and practice through independent, objective research.