Massachusetts preschool enrollment increased by fewer than 300 children in 2019-2020, as the pandemic shifted those programs to remote learning in the middle of the school year, according to a national report that found most states don’t provide enough funding to support all-day prekindergarten for all children.
The state’s prekindergarten enrollment included 37,543 students, with only 17 percent of 3-year-olds and 30 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled, according to The State of Preschool 2020, released Monday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
Prekindergarten spending for 2019-2020 in Massachusetts came to $105,778,125, an increase of about 3 percent over the previous year, according to the report, which was funded in part by the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
That amount is not enough to sustain gains in early-childhood education, one expert said.
“Massachusetts has a long way to go to increase public preschool spending to a level that will support the kind of quality we see in their K-12 programs,” said Steven Barnett, the founder and senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, in a statement. “The state only has to look as far as Boston for an example of a high-quality preschool program.”
In 2019, the institute awarded Boston a gold medal for for its commitment to providing a quality preschool experience to at least 30 percent of its 4-year-olds.
The state’s enrollment numbers last year were up by 4.9 percent for 3-year-olds and 18.2 percent compared to the 2001-2002 school year, the report shows.
Early-education advocates lauded efforts by the state and others to expand access to preschool but said the report shows the need for more funding, especially as the pandemic has laid bare increasing inequities.
Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All, a social advocacy campaign of the nonprofit Strategies for Children, said in a statement that the state should spend “significantly more” for “high-quality early education and care for all, beginning at birth.”
She called for the passage of a bill introduced in both houses of the Legislature that would help fund early-education programs statewide. In an interview Friday, she said the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a reminder of the need.
“The pandemic has really showed us how little public funding goes into supporting our youngest children,” O’Leary said. “So much of the funding comes from parents.”
JD Chesloff, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, said the pandemic had both “exposed and exacerbated” disparities.
“We are now more keenly aware how crucial high-quality early-childhood programming is for children and families, providers, the economy, and an equitable society,” Chesloff said in a statement, adding that many “advocates, providers, and public and private leaders” are working to address the need.
State Senator Jason Lewis, a lead sponsor of the early-education bill before the Legislature, said the report “provides further evidence for the pressing need” for the state to invest more in early education and child care.
“Doing so would ensure that all children receive the strong start in life that they deserve; enable working families to access high-quality, affordable programs in their communities; create a stable early-education system with a professional workforce that is treated with respect; and provide significant benefits to employers and our economy,” the Winchester Democrat said in a statement Friday.
Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, cofounder of Neighborhood Villages, which advocates for child care policy reform, said that states overall underinvest in preschool education. “Unfortunately, Massachusetts is no exception,” she said in an e-mail.
She called on the Legislature to pass the early-education bill.
“Today, preschool for too many families is pay-to-play,” she said. “No child’s early education should be dependent on his or her family’s financial circumstances.”
State officials say Massachusetts’ mixed-delivery system of privately paid and subsidized child care and early-education serves more than 55,000 children each year.
The state Department of Early Education and Care is working to increase access through a new strategic plan whose implementation was delayed by the pandemic, officials said. The department is changing its funding model from a set amount per child to an operational support model that will help stabilize funding as enrollments fluctuate, the state said.
Last month, the Baker administration announced that it would allocate more than $30 million in grants to support early education and care providers.
States’ broad disparities in quality and accessibility of publicly funded preschool have widened during the pandemic, officials from the institute said at a news conference on Zoom Thursday, ahead of the report’s release.
“Inequality has been increasing because disparities across the states have been increasing,” Barnett said Thursday. “The kind of early education a child gets depends on what state they’re born into.”
Research has shown that access to high-quality prekindergarten affects not only learning in children’s early years, but also their future academic, behavioral, and job success.
But amid a tough budget year following the pandemic, some Massachusetts fiscal experts are skeptical that the state can afford to invest more in early education now.
Massachusetts lags behind other states in finding sustainable funding streams and setting long-term goals to add seats and improve quality, and eventually reach the goal of universal access, Barnett said. Other states such as Alabama and West Virginia have tied their preschool funding to regular education funding, leading to stronger support amid economic downturns, he said.
“That’s not the case with some states like Massachusetts, where it just depends on what they come up with in each year’s budget,” Barnett said.
“Most states don’t spend enough,” Barnett added, noting that in his group’s view, only Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and North Carolina spend enough on early education.
President Biden pledged to push for universal prekindergarten as a candidate and his administration is planning to tackle steps toward that goal in a bill after his infrastructure package.
In recorded remarks at the news conference, US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said COVID has increased the number of children who missed out on early education due to school closures or parents’ safety concerns.
“Right now the United States lags behind most developed countries in public investment in children under five,” Cardona said. “As we continue to build back better, we have to continue investing in our youngest learners.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the country’s largest educators unions, said the new infusion of money from the Biden administration’s one-time $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill could help states build a foundation to grow their preschool offerings.
“It’s a complete game changer — there’s more money in the American Rescue Plan for local and state governments for education than people have seen in quite a long time,” Weingarten said. “It’s there to recover and start seeding the things that we know are important.”