A new state-by-state report on preschool education from Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research says Arkansas’s per-child investment in pre-kindergarten education declined significantly over the past eight years when adjusted for inflation, even as the researchers gave the state relatively high marks for its pre-K program standards.

The report, distributed by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, shows 50 percent of 4-year-olds and 35 percent of 3-year-olds in Arkansas are enrolled in state-funded pre-K, Head Start or special ed programs. Those figures are above the national average (44 percent of 4-year-olds and just 16 percent of 3-year-olds), but they also show the state is a long ways from universal access. Total pre-K enrollment was 20,285 in 2017.

Here’s the institute’s two-page fact sheet on Arkansas.

Unlike K-12 education, in which all children are guaranteed admission to public schools, access to pre-K varies from community to community and encompasses a hodgepodge of programs. The Arkansas Better Chance program — the state’s primary means of delivering pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds for families below 200 percent of the poverty line — has seen its funding stagnate since 2010.

That year, the state spent $6,189 for each enrolled child. In 2017, it spent $5,472 per kid, the report says. Those figures are expressed in terms of 2017 dollars. The Arkansas legislature has made incremental increases to the ABC budget over the past eight years, but not nearly enough to keep pace with inflation.

Enrollment for the state’s 4-year-olds declined over the same period, from 42 percent in 2010 to 31 percent in 2017. However, enrollment for younger children rose: 11 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in pre-K in 2010, rising to 19 percent in 2017.

Arkansas did meet eight out of 10 benchmarks set by the researchers, on such measures as class size, health and vision screenings and curriculum standards. But overall, the researchers warned, “state investment is not keeping up with our children and families’ needs.”

On a related note, I should belatedly mention recent news of a new research initiative from the Walton Family Foundation that will investigate what factors determine whether a pre-K program helps prepare kids for kindergarten. The foundation is best known for its controversial forays into K-12 education, where it funds charter schools and often pushes policies that promote the interests of charters. The Democrat-Gazette’s Cynthia Howell reported on the Walton initiative earlier this month.