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Pre-Kindergarten for All? Not By a Longshot

Which states are walking the walk when it comes to funding pre-K programs -- and which are lagging far behind?

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So with funding drying up left and right, how did New Jersey manage to out-fund everyone else? Thank the New Jersey Supreme Court: unlike most other states, New Jersey’s pre-K was established following a 1998 state Supreme Court case on equity in the schools. “There was a ruling that said preschool is part of ensuring equity,” explained Schulman. “So for the low-income school districts that were part of that lawsuit, preschool became mandated. They had a judge overseeing it and enforcing certain quality requirements.” Nearly 15 years later, the New Jersey program remains robustly funded; the state’s budget-cutting forces have so far kept their blades away from pre-K even as ARRA funds disappear.   

But funding alone doesn’t make pre-K work, so in addition to quantifying and ranking the size of states’ monetary investments in pre-K programs, the NIEER report also evaluates the quality of the programs, using benchmarks like minimum degree requirements for teachers, whether state inspectors conduct site visits, and whether a program provides at least one meal per day to determine their ranking. Which states performed best in meeting these benchmarks? Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and one program in Louisiana. In fact, if you live in Pennsylvania or California, you should know that Alabama outperformed your state in both funding and quality of pre-K programs.

California and Texas, two of the most populous states, are listed in the report as being “among those where funding is a major concern.” California, which doles out funds to pre-K programs through a competitive process but leaves quality standards up to local control, also fell to the bottom five in the quality of its programs. 

At least they’re trying. Eleven states, on the other hand, had no state-funded pre-K program at all: Arizona (which eliminated its only program last year), Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

Where It’s Working – And Why It May Not Last: A Closer Look at Maryland and Illinois 

As these states struggle to pass a cent in the direction of pre-K programs, Maryland and Illinois are two states that have indeed found success harnessing funding for these critical services. A closer look reveals how each has managed to achieve state support for pre-K – as well as the difficulty of maintaining funding in these tough economic times. 


Maryland, which ranks third overall in funding for pre-K and 12th in access to it for 4-year-olds, has ensured steady funding for its programs by tying it to funding for K-12 education. Binding the fate of pre-K with that of K-12 education has had some benefit for kids in the state: half of all 4-year-olds in Maryland now attend some type of state-funded education program.

The link Maryland has forged between pre-K programs and the K-12 education system not just financial – it’s physical, as well. “With very few exceptions, [the pre-K programs] are all in elementary schools,” said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant state superintendent in the Maryland Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Development. This approach differs from the trend in other states, where pre-K programs are often housed in child-care centers or community-based programs that provide a range of other services for families and children. 

Grafwallner says that in Maryland, “The long-term plan is what we would call preschool for all. A universal preschool approach,” with the state expanding its pre-K and child care subsidy offerings to cover all children, not just those from low-income households, as it does at present. Grafwallner notes that his department is currently piloting 10 such comprehensive programs in various parts of the state. 

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