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National report on preschool access urges several Mountain West states to get on the bus

 Gov. Jared Polis (D) of Colorado reads to a group of preschoolers. He states in his tweet that his budget will provide funding to ensure free preschool in the Fall of 2023.
Gov. Jared Polis (D) of Colorado reads to a group of preschoolers. He states in his tweet that his budget will provide funding to ensure free preschool in the Fall of 2023.

A new report on the state of preschool highlights the big differences in access to early childhood education among states in the Mountain West, with several flunking and New Mexico at the head of the class.

The National Institute for Early Education Research's annual Preschool Yearbook report started back in 2003 as a way to “bring more transparency to public policy and early childhood [education],” according to Rutgers University professor Steve Barnett, who founded the series.

This year’s report found that enrollment in the 2021-22 school year increased by 180,668 preschoolers nationally – a 13% jump from the previous school year but still 8% below pre-pandemic levels.

“It's still far from reaching most children,” Barnett said. “It's about a third of the kids in the country at age 4. Just 6% at age 3.”

The Mountain West has seen uneven progress in advancing high-quality preschool access, the report shows. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana still don't have state-funded preschool programs as defined by the report. Nevada and Utah have programs but with very limited reach.

“In the past 20 years, we've seen very little movement toward preschool for all,” he said. “It's been more gradual, slow progress across lots of states.”

But significant strides are being made in Colorado and New Mexico. Colorado's universal pre-K program – funded in part by a voter-approved nicotine tax – launches in July. And New Mexico's program is about to receive a $100 million infusion of state funding.

“Currently only 23% of four-year-olds have access in Colorado,” Barnett said. “I think that will be more than doubled in the first year of universal pre-K. So that's a tremendous change. New Mexico, the other state where voters dedicated a funding stream, already served over 40% of four year olds. New Mexico’s on a fast track to serve all kids and in a high-quality, relatively well-funded program.”

In terms of overall funding, states spent $9.9 billion on preschool in the 2021-22 school year, which, in terms of spending per child, represents little change over the past two decades.

“It's hard to understand why the nation’s made so little progress over the last 20 years, because preschool education is very popular with the public – not just parents, but voters generally,” he said. “I think there's a lot of bait and switch by policy makers. They promise that they're going to invest in preschool education and then they don't fulfill those promises.”

Barnett highlights research that shows participation in an early childhood education program is linked to higher education attainment later in life. He hopes more states will prioritize preschool investment, and that includes supporting teachers.

“We're facing teacher shortages all across the country, [and] this keeps early childhood classrooms from opening, much less having the quality that we want,” Barnett said. “The temptation is to lower standards. That just undercuts your investment. What we need to do is maintain standards, but provide enhanced compensation.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde
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