Iowa leads on 4-year-old preschool, lags on funding
Posted on May 22, 2023 at 12:00 PM by Anne Discher
When it comes to assuring preschool for young children, Iowa’s is a story of highs and lows, according to the latest comprehensive national survey of state preschool programs.
A clear leader in serving 4-year-olds — the report says Iowa is one of just a handful of states that can be considered to have achieved universal pre-kindergarten for this age group — Iowa lags below even the low national average in enrolling 3-year-olds. And on a per-pupil basis, Iowa funds PK at a level that’s barely half what states contribute nationally.
The findings are in “The State of Preschool Yearbook 2022,” released last week by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). It reported that 64% of Iowa 4-year-olds were enrolled in state preschool programs in 2022, placing the state fifth among the 45 states that offer 4-year-old preschool.
Among Upper Midwestern states, only Wisconsin comes close, serving 61% of 4-year-olds. Nationwide, just 32% of 4-year-olds are served by state Pre-K programs.
A state Pre-K program is considered “universal” when a spot is available for all children whose families want them to attend.
Iowa is nowhere meeting that standard when it comes to serving 3-year-olds. The state enrolls just 4% of 3-year-olds, or about 1,400 children, in state Pre-K — a number that grown only 1% since 2020-21 and just 2% since 2001-02. Nationwide, states served an average of 6% of 3-year-olds.
Iowa falls further behind national averages when it comes to PK funding. Iowa spends $3,622 per child on its preschool programs. Nationwide, states spend an average of $6,571.
Of Iowa’s two state programs, the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program is by far the larger, serving about 26,000 children, almost exclusively 4-year-olds. It has no income restrictions for families. The other program, Shared Visions, serves about 1,000 3- and 4-year-olds who are in low-income families or face other risk factors.
Statewide Voluntary Preschool, which launched in 2007 serving about 5,000 children, is now in almost every Iowa school district. School districts are required to offer at least 10 hours a week of instruction during the school year, and although many districts around the state have found ways to offer more, about half still offer 13 hours a week or fewer. Funding for Statewide Voluntary Preschool is based on the K-12 school formula — a preschooler generates 50% of the amount a K-12 student generates.
The NIERR report notes that, nationwide, funding adjusted for inflation remains basically unchanged after 20 years and is “well below what is required to fund a full-day preschool program of the quality required to meet the needs of young children for learning and development.”
Expanding the view to include other public preschool — early childhood special education and Head Start, which rely fully or significantly on federal funds — 71% of Iowa 4-year-olds and 11% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in public preschool, compared with 41% and 17%, respectively, nationwide.
In a release accompanying the report, W. Steven Barnett Ph.D., NIEER’s senior co-director, said, “We praise the work being done in Iowa to reach most 4-year-olds in the state. Iowa should assess its support for preschool against neighbors and other states that provide stronger support for quality standards, and funding per child. Iowa’s young children deserve no less.”