WASHINGTON - State funding for pre-kindergarten programs had its largest drop ever last year, and states now spend less per child than they did a decade ago, according to a report released today.
The report 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 money.
Those findings - combined with Congress' reluctance to spend new dollars - complicate President Obama's effort to expand pre-K programs across the country. While Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius continue to promote the president's proposal, researchers say existing programs are inadequate, and until their shortcomings are fixed there is little desire by lawmakers to get behind Obama's call for more preschool money.
"The state of preschool was a state of emergency," said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, which produced the report.
During his State of the Union speech, Obama proposed a federal-state partnership that would fund 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.
Families who earn more could participate in the program, but parents would have to pay tuition based on their income.
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.
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.
Duncan and Sebelius planned to join the report's researchers today at a news conference to introduce the report.
States spent about $5.1 billion on pre-K programs in 2011-12, the most recent school year, researchers wrote in the report.
Per-student funding for existing programs during that year dropped to an average of $3,841 for each student. It was the first time average spending per student dropped below $4,000 in today's dollars since researchers started tracking it during the 2001-02 academic year.
Adjusted for inflation, per-student funding has been cut by more than $1,000 in the last decade.
The amounts were widely varied. The District of Columbia spent almost $14,000 on every child in its program. Colorado, South Carolina and Nebraska spent less than $2,000 per child.
Among the 40 states that offer state-funded pre-K programs, 27 cut per-student spending last year. In total, that meant $548 million in cuts.
In all, only 15 states and the District of Columbia spent enough money to provide quality programs, the researchers concluded.
"In far too many states, funding levels have fallen so low as to bring into question the effectiveness of their programs by any reasonable standard," researchers wrote.