Access to the state preschool program continued to shrink in fiscal year 2011, putting the state even further off track from its original plans to serve all 3- and 4-year-olds by this year.

Cuts in fiscal year 2010 previously caused the program to lose 7,400 spots – about 8 percent of its total enrollment. The following year, the state preschool program lost an additional 4,000 spots, despite flat funding. (Because most salary and administration costs increase from one year to the next, flat funding generally results in declining enrollment for preschool programs.)

All told, Illinois now has just 29,000 more preschool seats than the state did in 2001-02, before the Preschool for All program was started, according to an annual report released Tuesday morning by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Given that further cuts were approved for fiscal year 2012, the state is virtually certain to continue losing seats. That may change for fiscal year 2013, however. According to the state budget book, Governor Pat Quinn proposed funding preschool at $345 million, slightly above 2011 levels. But that would still be less money than the program netted in 2009, before cuts began.

Preschool for All serves about 20 percent of the state’s 3-year-olds and 29 percent of 4-year-olds. That puts Illinois ahead of any other state in access for 3-year-olds, but in 15th place for 4-year-olds.

For spending, however, Illinois is close to the bottom – 32nd out of 39 states with preschool programs, at just $3,449 per child per year.

Though Illinois is one of the cheapest states, declining per-pupil funding has been the norm rather than the exception in recent years. In the last decade, state funding has plummeted by more than $700 per child, says Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“As many states expanded enrollment, funding did not keep pace,” Barnett says. “Research tells us the only pre-K programs that really help children prepare for school are high-quality.”

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