Arizona has proposed cutting early childhood programs entirely, while Illinois plans to cut $48 million from its programs.

Arizona has proposed cutting early childhood programs entirely, while Illinois plans to cut $48 million from its programs.

States are cutting hundreds of millions from their early childhood education budgets, undermining years of working to help young children—particularly poor kids—get ready for school.

States are slashing nearly $350 million from their pre-kindergarten programs by next year, and more cuts are likely on the horizon once federal stimulus money dries up, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The reductions mean fewer slots for children, teacher layoffs, and even fewer services for needy families who can’t afford high-quality private preschool programs.

One state—Arizona—has proposed eliminating its 5,500-child program entirely. Illinois cut $32 million from last fiscal year’s early childhood education budget and plans to slash another $48 million this year.

“The overall impact is less access to a quality education in the early years at a time when parents have reduced capability to purchase that on their own,” said Steve Barnett, co-director of the Rutgers institute. “Families are getting hit from both sides.”

Wealthier parents can afford to send their kids to private preschools, but children from poorer families will likely languish in lower-quality childcare that doesn’t prepare them for kindergarten, experts said.

On a recent morning at Walden Early Childhood Center in Atlanta, a pre-K class worked on shape and color identification by making flowers out of glue and construction paper. Afterward, the 4-year-olds broke into stations where they put on puppet shows, read books by themselves, and played at a basin filled with water and toys.

“It is important to really give kids that foundation before they go to school,” said Michael Morrier, project director for the center’s grant with the state. “It really closes the gap between the middle-class kids and the lower-income kids.”

Thirty-eight states had early childhood programs serving more than 1.2 million 3- and 4-year-olds as of last year, the latest data available.

Barnett said just four states had made cuts by last year, but that number jumped to 14 this year and likely will be another 14 next year. The cuts come at a time when the demand for high-quality early childhood education is at an all-time high, as states struggle to improve test scores in early grades and give more students a better chance of getting a high school diploma.