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Arizona preschools fall toward bottom of the pack in national report

(Pixabay Photo)

PHOENIX — A new report grading preschool programs nationwide doesn’t show good results for Arizona.

“Arizona is really toward the bottom of the pack,” Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said.

The institute’s report released Wednesday found only 4% of 4-year-olds and 2% of 3-year-olds in Arizona were enrolled in state-funded preschool last year.

That’s well below the national averages — nationwide, 33% of 4-year-olds and 5.7% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in public preschool programs last year.

Arizona’s preschool programs also only met three of the report’s 10 quality standards. Barnett said large class sizes and low teacher qualifications are to blame.

“The good news in our report is that Arizona did make some progress in terms of increasing spending on the programs to raise quality,” Barnett said.

According to the report, Arizona spent more than $21 million on its preschool programs last year, an increase of 9% from the previous year.

Barnett said what stood out for him about Arizona’s findings are how enrollment and funding has fluctuated over the last decade.

“If Arizona could get on a schedule to make regular improvements – small steps forward in the right direction – a lot more children would have access and a lot fewer would miss out on the opportunities they need to get a good start,” he said.

Liz Barker Alvarez, chief policy adviser for First Things First, said the report shows there’s room for improvement.

At the same time, she said her group has its own way of rating the quality of Arizona’s preschool programs.

“When we rate a program, we actually go into the classroom and we observe the teacher working with the children,” she said.

“We observe the entire learning environment, and we take that information into account when we say that a program is either meeting the quality standards or not.”

Her group runs Quality First, which works to improve the quality of preschool and other early learning programs in Arizona.

It assesses programs, identifies areas of improvement and provides a coach to help make improvements. It also rates programs each year.

Alvarez said in 2013 when Quality First started rating programs, about a quarter met or exceeded quality standards. In the most recent rating, 74% met or exceeded the standards.

Alvarez credits the improvement to her group’s efforts to provide support to early learning programs, including providing scholarships for teachers so they can go back to school.

“We know that this entire approach does work to improve the quality of early learning that children are receiving,” she said.

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