Nevada ranked 40th nationally in access to state-funded preschool in the 2019-20 school year, according to a new report, but the state also saw an increase in enrollment and a significant increase in spending.
Nevada spent $19.7 million on preschool last school year — an $11.7 million increase over the previous year — but publicly funded early-childhood education programs are at risk of experiencing “long-term damage” due to the pandemic’s effect on the economy, according to leaders of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).
“Nevada must act now to mitigate the pandemic’s impacts on young children and pre-k programs, get pre-k back on track for next year, and recommit to long-term progress,” said Steven Barnett, NIEER’s founder and senior co-director.
State spending for preschool in Nevada nearly doubled to compensate for the end of the federal Preschool Development Grant, landing Nevada 15th in spending per child nationally. State spending per child was $6,428 compared to $3,723 in 2018-19, according to the report.
The funds for Nevada Ready! State Pre-K (NR!PK), the states prekindergarten program, were made available when legislators in 2019 awarded $19 million to sustain seats established through the Preschool Development Grant.
“The state is moving in a positive direction and should take this time to also focus on improving program quality standards,” Barnett said.
Washington, D.C., topped the list of states — or in this instance, District — spending per child, at $18,421, and D.C. was reaching 79 percent of its 3- and 4-year-olds.
Nevada enrolled 3,070 children in preschools, an increase of 931 from 2018-19. The state only met six of 10 minimum standards for high-quality preschool education, and only about 8 percent of 4-year-olds and no 3-year-olds in the state were enrolled in state-funded preschool.
“Pre-k programs are not required to be offered by school districts and when there is a reduction in funding it’s easier to cut it from the budget,” said Annette Dawson Owens, school readiness policy director for the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, adding that low income families are less able to send their children to high-quality preschool programs.
“Access to high-quality programs is an equity issue,” Owens said. “Nevada State Ready Pre-K prepares underserved children to enter school ready for success.”
About 72 percent of Nevada children served by Nevada Ready State Pre-K (NRPK) live in childcare deserts. During 2019-2020, nearly 75 percent of enrolled children were served in programs operated by their local school districts, with 59 percent of school districts providing NRP-funded programs or classrooms.
“We know that the single greatest predictor of a child’s success in the future is their school readiness. It’s better to invest in the beginning then remediate in the end,” said Owens. “For every dollar we spend, the return can be up to 15 percent. It’s a huge return on investment that levels the playing field.”
COVID and changes to the state student funding formula have made budget planning for pre-kindergarten an even more uncertain and precarious process in Nevada.
The Office of Early Learning and Development notes that while the total funding for NRPK last year was $19.7 million, school districts were required to incorporate other funding sources including Zoom, Victory, Title I, Head Start, and district general funds to serve 3,094 kids, meaning that total funds used for the program actually equaled $26 million.
Those additional funds are now at risk because of COVID-related budget shortfalls and the new state funding formula which rolls categorical funding, like Zoom and Victory, into the base per-pupil funding amount.
The calculated cost of high quality prekindergarten is $8,410 per child, said Patti Oya, director of the Office of Early Learning & Development for the Nevada Department of Education.
“What we are asking is for Nevada to develop a cost-driven, not a budget-driven formula,” Oya said.
The Children’s Advocacy Alliance is asking legislators to support the stabilized $8,410 per seat cost to maintain the program at current levels. The alliance is also asking legislators to support at least $26 million per year to maintain the current seat levels.
“We are at risk of losing seats,” said Denise Tanata, an early childhood advocate.
“We believe that how Nevada can best continue to fund preschool is by having dedicated funding which can be achieved by adding pre-k into our k-12 pupil centered funding formula, said Owens. “That is the switch in mindset that needs to happen. Our goal is voluntary universal pre-k for all who want it.”
The Rutgers University-based center’s annual State of Preschool Yearbook found that nationwide, enrollment in state-funded preschool increased slightly in 2019-2020, but took a hit in 2020-2021 as the pandemic presented new challenges for preschool access and quality after many programs closed or only offered virtual learning.
“Lawmakers need to act now to address learning loss, stress on young children and families, and get pre-k back on track,” said Barnett.
In several of the largest states, including Florida and Texas, quality standards are very low, and most children in pre-k are unlikely to receive the quality of education needed to provide long-term gains in learning and development, said Barnett.
Uneven progress among states is worsening inequality in children’s access to high-quality preschool, according to the report. Only 12 state-funded preschool programs require teachers to have specific training or qualifications related to working with dual language learners. Just 31 programs can even report the number of children enrolled who speak a language other than English.
Nevada is one of the 31 programs that can report how many preschool children in their program speak a language other than English, however the state does not require teachers to have specific training or qualifications related to working with DLLs. The state does make an effort to assess children in their home language through a funding stream separate from preschool funding that can be used to support the needs of DLLs.
“Funding is a key impediment to quality and current spending is less than half of what is needed in many states,” said Allison Friedman-Krauss, NIEER assistant research professor. “Teaching staff are poorly paid and some programs offer children as little as 10 hours of preschool each week. To have a lasting impact, more funding is needed to improve quality for children, support full-day programs, and provide teachers with competitive salaries and benefits. Nationwide, we estimate that programs need an average of at least $12,500 annually per child to do this, a significant increase from current investments in most states.”
Pre-pandemic studies found private child care in Nevada costs more than college tuition, and nearly as much as rent.