Before Diamande Montague started preschool, she was the kind of kid who clung to her mother's skirt. When she and her mom went outside and other kids gravitated to each other, she'd hover close to mom. If they were in a doctor's office with a play area and the other kids were helping themselves to books and blocks, Diamande wouldn’t join them.
Besides being shy, she had a speech delay. But two years later, her mother said, Diamande talks "mucho mucho mucho." She's learning the alphabet and can spell her name.
Diamanda's mother, Saran Dore, who lives in the Bronx and sends her daughter to a preschool program administered by the New York City-based non-profit Children's Aid Society, is one of many low-income parents who say early education has made a difference in their children's lives.
But not everyone is so lucky. Over the last 10 years, states have gutted funding for public pre-K programs, leading to what the National Institute for Early Education Research calls a "crisis in quality."
"When it comes to states funding preschool, unfortunately we're back to where we were maybe a decade ago," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in response to the report, released today. "Our youngest learners will not be college and career ready if we slash preschool dollars."
While more kids than ever are enrolled in state pre-K programs, enrollment growth has slowed and most states aren't spending enough on the added slots to meet important quality benchmarks, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, a grant-funded research group based at Rutgers University in New Jersey. State-funded pre-K is one of several types of preschool -- private programs and federally funded Head Start are others. State programs accounted for 28 percent of U.S. 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool in the 2009-2010 school year, the largest type of preschool program.
The percentage of eligible kids in state-funded programs doubled over the last decade, the report said. And politicians and editorialists have applauded the growth. But something less laudable also happened. "Funding slipped as enrollment increased," said Steven Barnett, the Rutgers education economics professor who directs the institute. "We've taken a giant step backward as a nation."
The report, which the institute calls its "2011 State of Preschool Yearbook," contains data compiled by tracking early childhood programs over the last decade. The institute found that state funding for pre-K programs decreased by about $60 million in 2010-2011, following a $30 million cut the year before. This year, $127 million in stimulus funding ends. States spent $145 per child less in the last year, the report said -- and the cut would have been $245 per child if not for the stimulus money. In the last decade, the institute found, pre-K spending fell by more than $700 per child to an average of $4,151.
At the same time, researchers have demonstrated that access to pre-K can help children get into college and climb out of poverty. James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, found that every dollar spent on Head Start yields $7 to $9 as the program's alumni begin working and contributing to the economy. Helping students catch up in later grades costs more than early education programs. Scientists have also found that early education helps insulate children from the extreme stress that often comes with poverty. "Toxic stress," as that condition is known, can warp the structure of a child's brain in ways that may impede school success.
While some of the preschool cuts can be traced to the recession, the institute found that the trend of "eroding quality and the gradual substitution of inexpensive child care for early education" predates the bad economy. The group's benchmarks for quality include teacher training and certification, class size, staff-to-child ratio and meals. Only two states improved on the quality standards last year, and four worsened. More than 40 percent of students enrolled in state-funded pre-K participated in programs that failed to meet at least half the standards.
Duncan used a choice term to describe such programs: "Glorified babysitting."
The report comes as Head Start is on the chopping block in Congress, and as states that supplement the federal government's funding are contributing less. According to the institute, 16,812 children attended Head Start programs that had state contributions last year -- a decline of 40 percent over the decade.
"This is not a partisan or a liberal or a conservative issue," said Barnett. "We need to raise achievement. We need more high school graduates. ... And to do this, we must get education right from the very start."