Report: Oregon provides preschool at high cost

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PORTLAND — Oregon enrolls relatively few children in state-funded prekindergarten classes but spends more per student than every state except New Jersey, according to an annual report on the nation's preschools.

The rankings from the National Institute for Early Education Research are almost identical to the ones Oregon received last year and are similar to the institute's initial report a decade ago.

Gov. John Kitzhaber and the Legislature increased pre-K funding by $11 million in 2011-12, allowing programs to serve 1,260 additional children.

Still, of the 40 states with preschool programs, Oregon ranked 30th in enrollment, with 7,200 children from low-income homes attending.

Oregon spends $8,500 per student. Though second-highest in the nation, it's less than what the state was spending a decade ago. In today's dollars, for example, Oregon spent a little more than $10,000 per student in 2004.

Besides figures on spending and enrollment, the report includes a checklist of quality standards. Oregon met eight of the 10 targets, a total reached by half the states. It recommends that every preschool teacher be required to hold a college degree and that every assistant teacher have to prove his or her qualifications for early childhood education.

Florida, the state that led the nation in enrollment, met just three of the 10 quality standards.

Jada Rupley, hired in September as Oregon's first director of early learning services, said the state decided more than 20 years ago to offer a high-quality program modeled after Head Start to the neediest 3- and 4-year-olds in the state.

She said it was a wise decision, but Oregon must add other, less-costly programs to serve many more 4-year-olds who need something extra to get them ready for kindergarten but who may not need all the comprehensive services of Head Start.

She said Gov. John Kitzhaber hired her in hopes of helping more preschoolers before they get to kindergarten. Serving only 10 percent of 4-year-olds in state-funded prekindergarten is not enough, she said.

"The governor is so committed to overhauling the early learning system so we can reach more kids and get better results," she told The Oregonian newspaper (http://is.gd/dIgruV).

The national outlook for early childhood education is getting worse, the report says. For the first time, states spent less on preschool than the year before. The effect was that preschool enrollment failed to grow for the first time since the institute began tracking it in 2001, stalling at 28 percent of the nation's 4-year-olds.

And spending per child dropped to below $4,000 for the first time in a decade.