OPINION: The pandemic wiped out decades of progress for preschoolers. It’s time to get them back on track

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One clear lesson from the pandemic: Children lose out when they don’t attend school. Young children learn best through hands-on activities, and parents found “remote” preschool a frustratingly poor substitute for in-person learning. No group of children fared worse than preschoolers during the pandemic, as it erased a decade of progress with drops in enrollment and waivers for quality standards. The nation should respond not just by returning to the pre-pandemic norm but by offering high-quality preschool education to every child.

The pandemic’s impact on children is clear. According to the most recent report released by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), a majority of 3- and 4-year-olds received no preschool education in 2021-22. Despite substantial gains from 2020-21, the worst year for preschool in a decade, over 130,000 fewer students were enrolled in state-funded programs than in 2019-20.

Among those who did enroll, most did not attend a program with the high standards for quality that research has shown produce long-term positive impacts.

Related: PROOF POINTS: Long-term college benefits from high-quality universal pre-K for all

Unfortunately, low access to quality preschool is a theme: In the 20 years since NIEER began collecting data on the state of preschool in America, we have seen only piecemeal steps forward and frequent steps back in funding and access for high-quality preschool programs across the country. During that time, real state spending per child has remained essentially unchanged, making clear that our nation has not prioritized early education despite its proven benefits and ongoing bipartisan support. Without fundamental change, this trend will continue.

One explanation for our lack of progress is that, for the most part, public preschool programs are restricted to serving children in low-income families, as is the federal Head Start program. In 2022, only Washington, D.C., and six states truly offered preschool education to all children. Other programs, including some that are called universal, fail to serve all eligible children because of inadequate budget appropriations and other restrictions.

As a nation struggling to get our financial house in order, universal preschool is the kind of investment we need.

That means that many state programs and federal Head Start effectively cap enrollment. As a result, just 32 percent of America’s 4-year-olds and 6 percent of our 3-year-olds received state-funded pre-K in 2021-22.

This nation’s continued failure to provide preschool education is at odds with a growing body of evidence, from states including New Mexico, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and New Jersey, that preschool programs are a sound investment.

Such programs have been found to improve education outcomes and increase educational attainment. In addition, there is evidence that universal preschool programs, such as those in Oklahoma and Georgia, have better outcomes than income-restricted programs.

Yes, they raise costs in the short-run, but long-run benefits — from reduced school failure to lower crime, better health and increased productivity — far exceed the costs.

Related: Tulsa study offers more evidence of pre-K’s benefits into adulthood

As a nation struggling to get our financial house in order, universal preschool is the kind of investment we need. But at the federal level budget cuts seem more likely than increases to fund universal preschool.

Amid the lack of federal progress, it is encouraging that for the first time in decades several states across the country are taking steps forward by launching new universal pre-K initiatives. For the roughly 25 percent of American children who live in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and New Mexico, the inability to access pre-K could become a thing of the past.

The initiatives vary in their origins and timelines. In Colorado and New Mexico, ballot initiatives approved new funding streams for early education. In California, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey, governors put forward the new initiatives. Timelines range from California’s ambitious pledge to fully offer universal preschool by 2025 and Michigan’s goal of 2027 to states with indefinite schedules to reach all children.

Two decades of tracking state preschool policies have taught us that pre-K promises are not always kept. The first state to enact “universal” pre-K was Georgia, where enrollment peaked in 2017-18 at 61 percent and has since declined.

New York State launched universal pre-K in 1998 but was serving only 54 percent of 4-year-olds 21 years later, when the pandemic hit.

Making sure this new wave of universal pre-K becomes a reality — and even fulfilling the promises of the old wave — will require more resolute leadership and a public that holds leaders accountable.

Without the success of this new wave, it could take another century to achieve universal preschool nationally. Let’s create the public pressure to support the leaders behind it and encourage others to join. Investments in quality universal preschool for all will benefit our children and society as a whole.

Steven Barnett is senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

This story about universal preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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