The State of Preschool 2010


State of Preschool 2010 coverFor the ninth time, the
National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), based at Rutgers, has
issued a voluminous “yearbook” on the progress of state-funded preschool
programs. This is all part of NIEER's commitment—and that of the yearbook’s
primary funding source, the Pew Charitable Trusts—to making publicly financed,
state-sponsored preschool universally available across the U.S. I’ve long
harbored serious
misgivings about the “universal” part
. Because some kids really need a ton
of preschooling and others don’t, in a time of tight resources, it makes more
policy sense to focus on intensive programs for the neediest youngsters rather
than on what generally turn out to be rather thin programs for everyone. And
today resources are tighter than ever. In fact, 2010 is the first time since
NIEER began tracking these numbers that state funding for preschool actually
declined, and the yearbook states clearly that sans short-term federal subsidy
it would have declined precipitously. This the authors naturally lament. But as
tight resources—the “new normal”—beset federal, state, and local budgets now
and for the foreseeable future, such lamentation might better be turned to
refocusing the policy objective. (A new normal is also going to arrive in the
universal preschool-advocacy sector
in the near future, as Pew winds down its generous support of such activities
and moves on to other topics—ironically including the effects of the “new
normal” on state and local budgets.) Another problem echoed in this yearbook:
NIEER’s definition of “quality” preschool, while faithful to widely held views
in the early-childhood field, continues to emphasize inputs and processes, not
outcomes. They acknowledge this—but it doesn’t mean they’ve changed. Of their
ten big “quality standards,” at least eight are mainly about spending, credentials,
ratios, and services, not about kindergarten readiness and other (increasingly
measurable) signs that such programs are actually preparing their wee charges
to succeed in school. (That far too many of those elementary schools are
ill-suited to sustaining preschool gains is another enduring problem, but one that is beyond
NIEER’s and the yearbook’s scope.)

W. Steven Barnett, Dale J. Epstein, Megan E.
Carolan, Jen Fitzgerald, Debra J. Ackerman, Allison H. Friedman, “The State of Preschool 2010” (Newark, NJ:
National Institute for Early Education Research, 2011).

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.