California accounted for majority of 2022–23 pre-K funding increases nationwide

California now ranks 16th in the nation for preschool enrollment for 4-year-olds and 15th for 3-year-olds across both the California State Preschool Program (CSPP) and transitional kindergarten (TK), according to a report released April 18 by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

While strides in preschool enrollment have been made nationwide, the 2023 State of Preschool Yearbook showed that significant state-by-state disparities in access, quality and funding continue widening each year as some states seek to prioritize early learning while others have no programming at all.

“We are emerging from a time when the pandemic really hit preschool, vastly reducing enrollment, and reducing attendance for kids who were enrolled,” Steve Barnett, NIEER founder and senior co-director, said during an April 16 press briefing. “High-quality preschool education can increase educational attainment and success, increase earnings and employment, even improve your health and longevity, and yet half of all children in poverty do not attend a preschool program at ages 3 and 4. And those who do go, more often than not, are not in a high-quality program. And that means [we aren’t achieving] the kinds of outcomes we know preschool can produce.”

During the 2022–23 school year, states enrolled over 1.63 million children in preschool nationwide — a 7 percent increase over the prior year, with 35 percent of 4-year-olds and 7 percent of 3-year-olds enrolled. Per-pupil spending surpassed $7,000 for the first time, and state expenditures increased 11 percent when adjusted for inflation, reaching $11.73 billion.

California’s progress toward meeting its goal of achieving universal preschool for 4-year-olds by 2025–26 and improving quality was a bright spot among the findings. NIEER’s breakdown of state findings showed that, in the 2022–23 school year:

  • California increased preschool funding by nearly $1 billion, accounting for 71 percent of the entire national increase in pre-kindergarten spending. This additional funding increased access in both CSPP and TK.
  • The state served 38 percent of its 4-year-olds and 9 percent of 3-year-olds in state-funded programs, for a total combined enrollment of 209,081 — an increase of 27,467 children from the prior year.
  • State spending totaled nearly $3 billion, with an additional $210 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds supporting the program, representing a 35 percent increase from the prior year when adjusted for inflation.
  • Per-pupil spending, including COVID-19 relief funds, averaged $15,305 in 2022–23, up $2,258 from 2021–22, adjusted for inflation.
  • California’s TK met three of 10 research-based quality standards benchmarks for minimum quality recommended by NIEER and CSPP met six of 10.

The list of benchmarks includes early learning and development standards (met by TK and CSPP); teachers have a bachelor’s degree (met by TK); teachers have specialized pre-K training (met by CSPP); assistant teachers have a Child Development Associate Credential or equivalent; professional development or coaching for all staff; no more than 20 students per class; a staff-to-child ratio of no more than 1:10 (met by CSPP); vision, hearing and health screenings and referrals (met by CSPP); curriculum supports (met by TK and CSPP); and a continuous quality improvement system (met by CSPP).

The commitment to providing early learning opportunities to all 4-year-olds is one of the most significant drivers in this growth, according to Barnett.

“California, with its big new push for universal pre-K or TK, counted by itself for over 70 percent of the nationwide spending increase,” he said. “That demonstrates the importance … of this new wave of universal preschool that includes not just California, but Hawaii, New Mexico, Colorado, and governors’ commitments in Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey.”

The report calls for the federal government to offer states financial incentives to support high-quality preschool education. Given the long-term return-on-investment of high-quality preschool, and the fact that that red and blue states alike have increasingly prioritized pre-K over the last 21 years but are struggling to pay for it, helping states pay for quality preschool expansion should be an area of bipartisan consensus in Congress.

Barnett said that with an additional $30 billion, states could provide a quality, full school-day preschool program to all 4-year-olds. If the federal government increased support for pre-K education to the states by $1.5 billion per year over the next 10 years, the federal government would cover half that cost in 10 years.

Read the report and supplemental materials.