WASHINGTON - Want your child to go to a state-funded pre-K program? Choose your home state wisely.
A new report to be released Tuesday finds wide disparities in the number of spots available for publicly funded preschool programs. A whopping 94 percent of 4-year-olds attended such a program in the District of Columbia and more than 7 out of 10 did in Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont. Ten states had no such program.
In fact, even as lawmakers from both parties have embraced the idea of expanding early childhood programs, the number of children enrolled in state preschool programs saw a modest decline of about 9,200 children in the 2012-2013 school year - the first such reduction since 2002, when researchers at Rutgers University started tracking pre-K trends. Even as funding increased from a year earlier, more than half of states with programs made cuts. California alone, for example, lost nearly 15,000 slots.
Overall, $5.4 billion was spent by states on pre-K funding for about 1.3 million preschoolers.
The report is from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers in collaboration with the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.
Given announcements of support by politicians for preschool, Steven Barnett, the director of the institute at Rutgers, said he expected more growth to be reflected in the findings, and yet, "the numbers aren't there."
"We were very surprised," Barnett said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the data is a "reminder of how much work we still have to do to ensure that every child gets a running start."
President Barack Obama has advocated for universal preschool for America's 4-year-olds. He's found Democratic allies in the effort on Capitol Hill, but Republicans such as Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chair of the House education committee, have said improving existing federally funded early childhood programs should be the priority.
Outside of Washington, governors from both parties have advocated for creating or expanding preschool. In Indiana, GOP Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed into law in March a new pilot program for low-income children. In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, recently successfully pushed through an expansion of about 1,000 preschool slots.
Those changes aren't reflected in the report findings, nor are program expansions passed in New York that could have New York City alone see tens of thousands of new children attending state-funding preschool programs, possibly as soon as the fall.
Supporters say preschool programs help level the playing field for young children who enter kindergarten well behind their peers and never catch up, and members of the business community are among those advocates for preschool expansion. But the quality of such programs vary.
No states require preschoolers to attend school. Some states seek to universally offer it. Others base eligibility on family income. Under some setups, a community-based program receives public dollars. Other programs are within elementary schools.
While some states offer state-funded preschool to 3-year-olds, the programs are much more popular for 4-year-olds.
Among states offering program for 3-year-olds, the District of Columbia serves about three quarters of these youngsters. New Jersey and Vermont serve about 1 in 5 3-year-olds.
Public preschool programs can cost in the thousands per child annually. The District of Columbia - the highest spender - spent $14,690 per child in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the report.
Barnett has said previously that about half of U.S. children attend any kind of preschool program at ages 3 and 4, and for about a third of these children it is a publicly supported program.
A separate study by the Education Commission of the States finds that in the current fiscal year, 30 states and the District of Columbia increased appropriations for state-funded preschools.