An increasing number of Arizona three- and four-year-old children have enrolled in preschool in the past five years and over half attend full-day programs, according to a recent national report on early childhood education.
Arizona ranks 13th in the nation for preschool enrollment gains, and 19th in children attending full-day preschool, according to the 2015 Quality Counts report “Preparing to Launch: Early Childhood’s Academic Countdown.”
Early education is a critical issue in Arizona, because of “our increasing number of children ages 0 to 5, growth of children in foster care and consistently low education rankings compared to other states,” said Tara Jackson, president of Arizona Town Hall.
About 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before age five, so the job of helping kids succeed in school begins on the day they are born, said Ofelia Gonzalez, public information officer for First Things First Arizona.
“Research shows that children with access to quality early learning programs are more prepared for kindergarten and do better in school,” Gonzalez said. “In addition, they are less likely to need special education services and be held back in school.”
“Quality child care and preschool help children develop skills like motivation, self control, focus and self esteem that are crucial to their success now and once they enter school,” Gonzales said.
Just 35.2 percent of Arizona three-and four-year-olds attend preschool, ranking Arizona 49th among states in preschool enrollment.
While 64 percent of children whose parents make $100,000 attend preschool, just 40 percent of children whose parents make under $20,000 do.
“There have been both losses and gains in pre-k funding in Arizona over the last few years, which have impacted child care and public preschool,” Gonzalez said.
During the recession, Arizona reduced its child care subsidy from $83 million in fiscal year 2009 to virtually eliminating the state subsidy in 2010, Gonzalez said. In fiscal 2015, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer returned around $9 million to the state subsidy, Gonzalez said.
While the Early Childhood Block Grant pre-K program received $19.4 million in fiscal 2009, Arizona eliminated it in 2010. The grant had funded most school districts’ preschool programs not funded through federal Title I, preschool special education and/or Head Start funding program, Gonzalez said.
At the same time, there were two increases of funds to early childhood education in Arizona, Gonzalez said.
The federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 set aside $5 billion nationwide for early childhood education, including Head Start and early Head Start, Gonzales said.
“The second source of additional funds for child care and preschool is the Quality First scholarship, which First Things First has funded each year since fiscal year 2010,” Gonzalez said.
Quality First is a signature program of First Things First that partners with child care and preschool programs to assess and improve the quality of early learning in their programs, Gonzalez said.
“In fiscal year 2013, First Things First provided scholarships to 14,121 infants, toddlers and preschoolers, which includes 8,562 three- to four-year-olds, to help young kids gain access to quality preschool and child care,” Gonzalez said.
The scholarships are available to help families at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level afford quality early care and education for their children birth through five years old, and are only used at programs that participate in Quality First, Gonzalez said.
Arizona ranked 12th in the nation for children enrolled in kindergarten in 2013, and 20th in the nation for students attending full-day programs, according to the report.
Researchers have found students in full-day kindergarten programs have more time to explore subjects in depth, have more individual and small group time with the teacher than in half-day programs, and provide more time for assessment and individualized instruction, according to the Arizona Department of Education website.
Arizona eliminated all state funding for full-day kindergarten in 2010. Since then, many parents who want their children to attend full-day programs have paid tuition for the extra half day of instruction.
Some public school districts, like Washington Elementary, Marana Unified, Alhambra Unified, Florence Unified, Glendale Elementary, Mesa Public Schools, Avondale Elementary, Casa Grande Elementary, Tempe Elementary, Tucson Unified, Tempe and Chandler Unified, provide free, all-day kindergarten programs for all students.
While a large percentage of Arizona children attend private preschools, the majority of students attend public schools for preschool, kindergarten and first grade.