Preschool enrollment starts to rebound post-pandemic

Comparing the 2021–22 school year with pre-pandemic data, The National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) report The State of Preschool 2022 provides information by state on preschool enrollment, funding and policies, and outlines next steps for improvement.

Enrollment was down 8 percent from pre-pandemic highs though there was a 13 percent increase in enrollment from 2020–21. “This pattern was seen in nearly every state,” according to the report.

In Washington, D.C., Guam and the 44 states examined in the report that funded preschool programs in 2021–22, 6 percent of 3-year-olds and 32 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled.

More than $9.5 billion was spent on preschool by states, including $393 million in COVID-19 relief funding. Without the relief dollars, adjusted for inflation, spending would have seen a decline, the report found.

Worries remain around unprecedented preschool teacher shortages, as well as about waivers to education and specialized training requirements leading to fewer qualified teachers, “yet few states provided incentives for teacher retention or recruitment.”

In the last two decades, enrollment in preschool and total real spending have more than doubled. There were more than 1.5 million preschoolers enrolled in 2021–22, up from 695,383 students served in 2001–02. Per child spending was $6,571 in 2021–22.

However, “most children continue to lack access to high-quality preschool,” according to the report. “Though seven states currently working towards universal preschool offer a glimmer of hope — California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and New Mexico. Success in these states could dramatically alter the early childhood education (ECE) landscape nationally.”

NIEER is advising states to review their ECE systems and is calling on the federal government to give states more support as they attempt to provide high-quality, full-day preschool.


During the 2021–22 academic year, enrollment in California’s two preschool programs — the California State Preschool Program (CSPP) and the Transitional Kindergarten (TK) program — began to rebound from the pandemic, serving 181,614 children — an increase of more than 24,500 students from the previous year.

The state’s spending for the programs totaled more than $2.1 billion in addition to over $91 billion in federal recovery dollars — an inflation-adjusted 3 percent increase in spending from the prior year.

Including the federal funding, average per-child spending was $12,229, down an inflation-adjusted $1,433 from 2020–21.

By program, in 2021–22 per-child spending, including federal funds, was $13,585 for CSPP and $10,822 for TK.

According to the report, CSPP met six of 10 quality standard benchmarks while the TK program met three of 10. CSPP met early learning and development standards; curriculum supports; teacher specialized training; staff-child ratio; screening and referral; and continuous quality improvement system. The TK program met early learning and development standards; curriculum supports; and teacher degree (possessing a bachelor’s degree). Neither program met standards for assistant teacher degree (holding a Child Development Associate credential or equivalent), staff professional development or maximum class size.

Of the locations included in the report, California ranks 16th for access to state preschool for 3-year-olds, 18th for access for 4-year-olds, and fifth for both resources ranked based on state spending and resources rank based on all reported spending.


Providing high-quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds is a far-off goal for all states, according to NIEER, and all can take steps to better meet the broad indicators the organization monitors — access, quality standards and funding. Ensuring access to preschool for all children in the U.S. will take a lot more work and even states that meet all 10 quality standards benchmarks should make sure they apply to every classroom and then go further than meeting minimum requirements for providing quality instruction.

Additionally, “adequate funding is needed to support expansion and higher quality including salary parity for all teachers,” the report states. “Funding is the lynch pin. Few, if any, states provide adequate funding for a full-day, high-quality program and those that come closest reach only a fraction of age-eligible children.”

Using data from the report, NIEER suggests states audit their access, quality standards and funding adequacy. Policy and advocacy leaders should consider how many 3- and 4-year-olds lack access to publicly funded preschools; if the state’s quality standards are in alignment with the program outcomes desired for children and families; and how much additional funding is needed to increase program access and quality, as well as assessing lead and assistant teacher wages and benefits.

NIEER is also calling on the federal government to offer states more technical assistance and funding for preschool programs. The organization also cautioned the federal government to closely work with states on policy coordination with attention to the role of Head Start programs in states pursuing universal preschool. There is some concern that when Head Start reduces services to 3- and 4-year-olds as state preschool offerings expand, enrollment and quality of services may be undercut.