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US Early Childhood Education Spend–Say it Ain’t So!

As a recently married woman in my 30s, with dual US and German citizenship, my mind naturally at times wanders to the question of where I want to raise my hypothetical future children. When the National Institute for Early Childhood Education’s (NIEER) report on “The State of Preschool 2011” made news last week, it logically caught my attention. The headline “Drop in Per-Pupil Spending for Pre-K” made me nervous. Little did I know that once I dug into the data, I would be horrified!

I did some work on the education landscape in Berlin in late 2011 and remember coming across a neat statistic: the state of Berlin (it is a city and a state) spends 4% of its total state budget on early childhood education. I remember being pleasantly surprised by this figure, but of course having nothing to compare it to, I couldn’t really gauge if this was a big deal or not. The NIEER report gave me the chance to compare.

At first glance, my nervousness went away. One of the data points in the NIEER study is that reported spending per child enrolled is $4.8K per year. That actually sounded pretty good to me. A quick search on comparable early childhood data from Germany compiled in a recent study funded by the Bertelsmann Foundation gave me a similar figure: Germany overall spends about EUR 2.8K per year per child (about $3.7K). However, the fact that the German figure was lower than the US figure surprised me, so I dug further. As usual, the devil is in the details.

The methodology used in the German study – keeping in mind that Germany is increasingly aiming for universal early childhood education (even starting as early as 1 year of age) – was very different than the NIEER methodology. To get to their figure of EUR 2.8K per child, the study divided the total early childhood spend in Germany by the total number of children under 6 in the whole country! Specifically EUR 11.5B total spend divided by 4.1M children under the age of 6.

So being a data geek I went back and tried to come up with the same number for the US. Based on the data in the NIEER study I can deduce that total state spending is about $6.4B. From childstats.gov I can see that in 2011 there were 25M kids between 0 and 5 in the US. Dividing $6.4B by 20M (let’s assume that is the portion that is aged 0 to 4) yields about $320 dollars per child. Ouch.

Clearly the data and systems are not comparable 1:1, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Germany spends nearly 12x as much on early childhood education as the US. 12x! I know your next question, what about quality and outcomes? We’ll leave that for another blog. But I can tell you that in the US the benchmark for staff-child ratio in early childhood education is 1:10 or better. In Germany the actual average is 1:5 for programs serving children below 3 years of age and 1:9 for programs serving children 3 and older.

I sincerely hope I made a math or methodology error here. Otherwise, it is pretty clear where I might want to raise my hypothetical future children.

Valerie Bockstette

Former Managing Director, FSG