Access to high quality preschool can have significant academic, economic, and even health benefits as documented in the Perry Preschool Study. In recent years, several states have either substantially increased state preschool funding or have begun to offer universal preschool programs to help increase children’s chances for long-term success. Nevada, however, lags significantly behind other states in providing access to preschool for many of its young learners. According to a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Nevada provides limited preschool opportunities compared to other states. In 2012-13, states with preschool programs served 17.6 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds, while Nevada’s preschool programs only served 1.8 percent of the preschool population.
High Quality Preschool Programs Can Help Improve Literacy
The Guinn Center for Policy Priorities’ recent policy brief, Literacy Challenges in Nevada, highlighted that Nevada’s students ranked 40th in the nation in fourth grade reading proficiency and 46th in the nation in eighth grade reading proficiency on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Research shows that children who attend high quality preschool programs are more likely to gain strong language and literacy skills that enable them to be academically successful. A strong preschool program can also help children with limited language development catch up with their peers. Children who attend high quality preschool are less likely to be retained in kindergarten through grade 3, have higher high school graduation rates, and have fewer behavior problems. These benefits are particularly pronounced for children from low-income backgrounds.
Nevada Serves Fewer Preschool Children than Other States in the Region
NCES found that Nevada and Arizona had the lowest percentage of 3- and 4-year olds enrolled in state sponsored preschool programs in the region in 2012-13, as shown in Figure 1.
Here we acknowledge that more recent data for 2013-2014 (not yet released) should reflect an increase in the percentage of Nevada children enrolled in state sponsored preschool. As part of Senate Bill 504 approved in the 2013 Legislative Session, the State launched a new $50 million initiative for the 2013-2015 biennium to improve outcomes for English Language Learners (ELLs). Funds have been provided to 20 “Zoom Schools” in Clark and Washoe counties with the highest rates of ELLs and the lowest academic outcomes. These schools are required to provide pre-kindergarten programs, full-day kindergarten programs, intersession programs, and reading skills development centers. With the new infusion of funds, the Clark County School District has added 28 teachers who conduct 56 pre-kindergarten classes in 14 schools, with a student to teacher ratio of 18 to 1. The Washoe County School District has used the new funds to serve approximately 165 students in pre-kindergarten classes across six schools.
Nevada State Preschool Funding Fell in 2012-13 While Most States Increased Funding
Nevada’s state appropriation for the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program remained constant at $3,338,875 in 2011-12 and 2012-13. However, after adjusting for inflation, NCES found that the amount of funding per student fell by 9 percent over this time. Nevada and Arizona were the only states in the region to reduce per student funding from 2011-12 to 2012-13; all other states in the region increased funding.
Are Nevada’s Preschool Programs High Quality?
Research is careful to point out that high quality preschool programs can have positive effects on literacy outcomes. Nevada conducts an annual evaluation of its ECE program. The 2011-12 evaluation concluded that over the short term, “Nevada ECE children made large cognitive gains in preschool and were clearly better prepared to enter kindergarten academically than if they had not participated in Nevada ECE.” Over the long term, the evaluation concluded that children have maintained the significant learning gains achieved in preschool and that participation in the program may have decreased the need for intervention services in elementary school.
The Zoom School pre-kindergarten program is new for 2013-14, so data is not yet available to evaluate the success of the program.
Looking Toward the Future
Given the links between high quality preschool programs and economic, academic, and health outcomes, policymakers should consider the following:
- Do the state and school districts have enough information to identify the qualities of high quality preschool programs across the state?
- Should the state provide additional resources to improve the quality of existing preschool programs?
- Should the state provide additional resources for expanding high-quality preschool programs, either through the ECE program or Zoom Schools or other models?
- Does the state need to explore creative financing methods such as social impact bonds for the purposes of adequately funding and resourcing high quality preschool programs?
- How should the state ensure that it is attracting quality preschool teachers and what professional development should be provided to ensure high quality instruction?
- How can the Nevada System of Higher Education collaborate with school districts to provide training for preschool teachers?