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Per-student pre-K spending lowest in decade

WASHINGTON — State funding for prekindergarten programs had its largest drop ever last year and states are now spending less per child than they did a decade ago, according to a report released today.

The report also found that more than a half million of those preschool students are in programs that don't even meet standards suggested by industry experts that would qualify for federal dollars.

Those findings — combined with Congress' reluctance to spend new dollars — complicate President Barack Obama's effort to expand pre-K programs across the country. While Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius continue to promote the president's proposal, researchers say existing programs are inadequate, and until their shortcomings are fixed there is little desire by lawmakers to get behind Obama's call for more preschool.

"The state of preschool was a state of emergency," said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, which produced the report.

States spent about $5.1 billion on pre-K programs in 2011-12, the most recent school year, researchers wrote in the report.

Per-student funding for existing programs during that year dropped to an average of $3,841 for each student. It was the first time average spending per student dropped below $4,000 in today's dollars since researchers started tracking it during the 2001-02 academic year.

Adjusted for inflation, per-student funding has been cut by more than $1,000 during the last decade.

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