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May 14, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Pre-kindergarten programs in Washington at the ‘tipping point’

With all the talk about expanding pre-kindergarten programs nationally and locally, a new report this week came with a surprise.

In the 2012-13 school year, the number of 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K across the country declined for the first time in at least 10 years, said a group of researchers from Rutgers University, with 9,000 fewer students than the year before.

The drop, they said, was driven by big declines in California and a few other states. In California alone, enrollment dipped by 15,000 students.

In Washington, enrollment stayed about the same  about 8,700 students who are 3 and 4 years old.

But this state is on the cusp of a big increase, said Amy Blondin, spokeswoman for the Department of Early Learning.

State legislators voted to add 1,350 seats for this upcoming school year, she said, and by 2017-18, the law guarantees a free pre-K spot for every child whose is eligible, based mainly on family income.

“We’re just at the tipping point right now, where we’re ramping up,” Blondin said.

That planned expansion will move Washington state way up in the national rankings when it comes to the percent of 4-year-olds in state pre-K programs, Blondin said.

Screen shot from the NIEER report

Screen shot from the NIEER report

In the Rutgers report, Washington enrolled about 8 percent of its 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K programs, which placed it 32nd out of 40 states and the District of Columbia.

The top states in 2012-13 included Florida, which enrolled 78 percent of its 4-year-olds, Oklahoma with 74 percent and Vermont with 71 percent. The District of Columbia had the highest percentage enrolled, with 94 percent.

The Rutgers researchers, part of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), looked exclusively at state-funded pre-K programs, not at federally funded Head Start preschools or local efforts like the one under consideration in Seattle.

In Washington state, roughly 20,000 students will attend either Head Start or state-funded pre-K programs next year, with about half in each.

NIEER chalked up the national enrollment decline to the lingering effects of the recession, which has also affected preschool spending. The good news this year, NIEER said, was that pre-K spending has started to increase again, after losing $500 million in 2011-12.

NIEER also ranked states on the quality of their programs, and Washington was among the 20 that met at least eight of the organization’s 10 quality standards.

Washington also ranked ninth in per-student spending. The average here last year was about $6,806 per child.

“Our state has focused on quality, rather than spreading the peanut butter really thin,” said Blondin.  “Moving forward, we get to do both.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: Department of Early Learning, early learning, early-childhood education

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