By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Enrollment in preschools stalled over the past year as states recovering from the recent recession struggle to fund early education for the nation's youngest students, researchers said.
In a report to be released later on Monday, education experts pointed to a record drop in state funding to serve the nation's 3- and 4-year-olds, citing a drop of more than half a billion dollars in the 2011-2012 school year from the year before.
Although a record high 1.3 million children attended state-run preschools in 2011-2012, it was the first year enrollment stagnated when taking the population growth into account, it showed. (for a graphic about the report, see http://link.reuters.com/duc77t)
The findings from Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research come as the Obama administration is pushing its proposal to expand access to early learning.
President Barack Obama's plan calls for a federal-state plan to enroll 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families in preschools while providing additional grants to states to expand access to other middle class families.
Early education is one area that both Democrats and Republicans generally support, although clashes arise over government's role and funding.
Monday's report highlights the disparities not only in access to available preschool programs across various states but also in their quality.
"Not only are we stalled, but it really matters what your zip code is," said Steven Barnett, who directs the Rutgers institute.
Overall, state funding per child fell by more than $400 to $3,841 per child on average in 2011-2012, the first year such funding dropped to below $4,000 per student, the report said.
While most U.S. schools begin offering education for students at age 5 for kindergarten, preschool programs vary widely state-by-state.
Most states offer some sort of preschool program for 4-year-olds from families with qualifying low incomes, according to the institute, and some also serve 3-year-olds.
Ten states do not offer preschool, also known as pre-kindergarten or pre-K: Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
Even among those with programs, few states offer so-called "universal preschool" for all children. Parents whose incomes are too high to qualify for state-run programs must pay out-of-pocket for private ones.
Under Obama's plan, the federal government would spend $75 billion over 10 years to widen access to state programs for lower income families. It also seeks to encourage states to broaden access so middle class families could opt in, calling for $750 million in such grants under his 2014 budget proposal.
Despite the president's push, his plan has moved little in Congress, where lawmakers have been focused on immigration, the budget and other issues.
Advocates of early childhood education say reaching 3- and 4-year-olds can help boost students' development long-term. But conservatives and other critics have questioned the federal government's effectiveness in early childhood work, questioning another the federally funded program for low-income 3- to 5-year-olds, Head Start.
Additional funds could help boost cash-strapped states that have cut back on preschool funding since federal stimulus monies ran out, the report said.
"As states emerge from the recession, pre-K continues to suffer," researches wrote, adding that the number of needy families has continued to rise.
Lack of funding has taken a toll on states' abilities to monitor programs and hurt the quality of such early childhood education, they added.
Few states met the institute's 10 benchmarks to assess quality such as teacher training, learning standards and class size, in large part due to funding cuts, the report said.
States that fared the best include Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina and Rhode Island, it said, while California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Vermont met the fewest quality standards.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)