Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — State funding for pre-kindergarten programs had its largest drop ever last year and states are now spending less per child than they did a decade ago, according to a report released Monday.
The researchers also found that more than a half million of those preschool students are in programs that don't even meet standards suggested by industry experts that would qualify for federal dollars. And 10 states don't offer any dollars to pay for prekindergarten classrooms.
"The state of preschool in America is a state of emergency," said report author Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
That assessment — combined with Congress' reluctance to spend new dollars — complicates President Barack Obama's effort to expand pre-K programs across the country. Until existing programs' shortcomings are fixed, it is likely to be a tough sell for Obama's call for more preschool.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius joined Barnett on Monday in Washington to release the report and acknowledge the challenges in educating the nation's youngest students within the existing and widely varied systems. Both Cabinet secretaries tried to portray the report's dire verdict as a reason to push forward with a federally backed preschool program.
"This year's report has some pretty grim news but I think it also highlights the urgency for the historic investment in early education that the president called for in his State of the Union," said Sebelius, whose department runs the Head Start programs for the poorest young students.
Added Duncan: "The news here isn't as good, isn't as positive as we would like it to be."
"If ever there was report that makes the case for the need for President Obama's preschool-for-all proposal, this report is it," the former Chicago public schools chief said.
During his State of the Union speech, Obama proposed a federal-state partnership that would dramatically expand options for families with young children. Obama's plan would fund public preschool for any 4-year-old whose family income was below twice the federal poverty rate.
If it were in place this year, the plan would allow a family of four with two children to enroll students in a pre-K program if the family earned less than $46,566.
Students from families who earn more could participate in the program, but their parents would have to pay tuition based on their income. Eventually, 3-year-old students would be part of the program, too.
As part of his budget request, Obama proposed spending $75 billion over 10 years to help states get these new programs up and running. During the first years, Washington would pick up the majority of the cost before shifting costs to states.
Barnett called that price tag "not much more than a rounding error in the federal budget."
Obama proposed paying for this expansion by almost doubling the federal tax on cigarettes, to $1.95 per pack.
Obama's pre-K plan faces a tough uphill climb, though, with the tobacco industry opposing the tax that would pay for it and lawmakers from tobacco-producing states also skeptical. Conservative lawmakers have balked at starting another government program, as well. Obama's Democratic allies are clamoring to make it a priority.
Yet lawmakers are already fighting among themselves over spending cuts that are forcing students to be dropped from existing preschool programs, the levying of higher fees for student loans and deep cuts for aid to military schools.
States spent about $5.1 billion on pre-K programs in 2011-12, the most recent school year, researchers wrote in the report.
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