Even though California spent $45 million more on early education last year than it did the year before, the state only managed to enroll 298 more kids in preschool.
That's one of the findings that led the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University to rate the state 28th for early education in its latest annual report.
The annual report is a national snapshot of how states are doing with preschool access and quality. For California it examined the state preschool program, which is available only to low-income children. (The California Department of Education does not count any four-year-old enrolled in Transitional Kindergarten (TK) in its preschool category, as it sees this as the first of a two-year kindergarten program, so TK students were not included in this report.)
California does best when it comes to the number of 3-year-olds in early education, ranking ninth in the nation. But it’s downhill from there.
The state not only hovers in the bottom half of all states for 4-year-old access, it also does poorly when held to scrutiny against a range of quality standard benchmarks. Every year NIEER evaluates preschool quality through a set of general benchmark standards. These include teacher qualification level and access to in-service training, class size, staff to child ratios, and systems in place to monitor and oversee quality.
Of the 10 quality benchmarks, California only met four in 2015: The state does have comprehensive early learning standards in place; its teachers do have access to at least 15 hours per year of in-service training; teachers are required to have an early education specialization training; and the state’s programs meet the one teacher to ten child ratio.
However, there are six more areas where the state fails to meet high quality standards, from unregulated class sizes, to low teacher qualification expectations, to not providing screening for support services children may need. The state preschool programs do not all provide meals to children in the program, and the program does not have comprehensive program monitoring in place.
California has never met more than four standards in all the years NIEER has done this study, going back to 2003.
In the 2015 report, neighboring states do better: Oregon meets nine out ten benchmarks and Nevada meets seven out of ten.
The California Department of Education did not respond to KPCC’s request for comment regarding why the state fails to implement stand quality benchmarks before publication.
For 2015, the model preschool states were New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Oklahoma and West Virginia, according to the report's authors. These states have highly qualified teachers, strong curriculum and high expectations of children and teachers.
They also demonstrate a “continuous improvement of the system,” said NIEER’s director, Steve Barnett, as well as “how to rapidly increase quality and access at the same time.”
One area that the report focuses on is teacher pay. California’s preschool teachers are not expected to have the same credential – a bachelor's degree – as elementary teachers and are not paid on par with their public school counterparts. In five states, including Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee, preschool teachers are paid the same as elementary teachers.
California does slightly better by its non-English speaking preschoolers. It allocates extra dollars and requires an in-home assessment in the child’s home language. Yet that’s not enough, Barnett said.
“Given California’s large Hispanic population, it’s crucial that the state put a strong dual language learner policy in place,” he said.
While NIEER reports have consistently found the state's preschool program to be wanting, previous studies have also criticized the state for its quality and access.