Preschoolers paintingNew Jersey has maintained its commitment to preK even as many states falter in delivering high-quality preschool education to children most in need, says a new landmark national report capping 10 years of research.

The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook shows the Garden State remained top-ranked, as it has been for the past decade.

Bolstered by its innovative, public-private partnership for preK, New Jersey moved up to second for enrollment of 3-year-olds and continues to rank in the top half for percentage of children enrolled at age 4. Though New Jersey enrolls 7 percent more children than a decade ago, its access ranking has dropped over that period from 9th to 16th as gains made by other states have eclipsed its position. Quality remained strong in 2010-2011 as early programs continued to meet at least of eight of 10 research-based quality standards benchmarks.

“For the second year in a row, nationally we’re seeing declines in real spending and per-child spending that strip resources from preK classrooms, many of which are already funded at levels below what it takes to deliver high-quality programs,” says Steve Barnett, director of the nonpartisan National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University that has surveyed state preschool programs since 2001-2002. “New Jersey remains committed to adequately funding effective, quality early education.”

The 2011 State Preschool Yearbook shows total state funding for the nation’s preK programs decreased by nearly $60 million from the previous year to the 2010-2011 school year. In the past 10 years, real spending on state preK has declined by about 15 percent, or more than $700 per child.

“A decline of this magnitude should serve as a wake-up call for parents and policy leaders about how well we are preparing today’s preschoolers to succeed in school and later find good jobs in a competitive market,” Barnett says. “States need to plan for future growth in preK just as they would for major projects, such as infrastructure, and avoid viewing pre-K as a year-to-year funding decision.”

He praised the federal $500 million Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge that is providing grants to nine states for improving quality, but said more needs to be done. President Obama has asked Congress to increase the federal commitment to states for early childhood education.

State pre-K generally has enjoyed bipartisan support during its expansion over the past decade. An overwhelming body of research shows that high-quality preK prepares children to succeed in school, enroll in college or career training, and helps more students ultimately get better jobs that can help the nation’s economy.

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