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CHARLESTON — West Virginia provided state-funded pre-Kindergarten last school year to a greater percentage of 4-year-olds than most states did, according to an institute at New Jersey’s Rutgers University that has ranked the state highly in the past.

With 68% of 4-year-olds enrolled in the state’s “universal” pre-K system, West Virginia ranked No. 6 in the nation, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“The shining light in our entire education system is our universal pre-K,” state Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said in a news conference with the institute.

But the institute has expressed concern nationally about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on preschool enrollment. Burch said he’s concerned, too.

A West Virginia Department of Education official previously said that, amid the statewide public school enrollment drop last fall compared to the previous fall, about 4,000 fewer students were enrolled in state-funded pre-K.

The following figures are all from the institute’s “State of Preschool” report, published last week. This data is from last school year, most of which was over before the pandemic triggered classroom closures.

Washington, D.C. — not a state but treated like one in the data — was No. 1 for the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled, at 84%. Nos. 2-5 were: Vermont at 76%, Wisconsin and Florida at 72% and Oklahoma at 70%.

West Virginia offers free pre-K to all 4-year-olds. The state also offers it to all 3-year-olds with special needs.

Compared to its 4-year-old enrollment, West Virginia enrolls a far lower proportion of total 3-year-olds, special needs and non-special needs combined, in state-funded pre-K: only 6%.

Still, most other states enrolled so few 3-year-olds that West Virginia’s 6% was enough to rank it about 15th nationally.

Again, D.C. ranked No. 1 there, at 73%. That’s 12 times West Virginia’s percentage.

Vermont clocked in at No. 2 with 59%, Illinois came in third at 22%, New Jersey fourth at 21%, and all other states were under 20%, with many at zero.

West Virginia’s Republican-dominated Legislature and Republican Gov. Jim Justice passed this year a law that’s estimated to increase annual state spending on education by about $103 million.

But that money won’t go to newly offering free pre-K to 3-year-olds without special needs.

Instead, that money is for the new non-public school vouchers program, called the Hope Scholarship, to provide families money for private- and home-schooling their children — at ages when they already have access to free public schools.

The law says only families with kindergarten-age children, not pre-K-age children, will be eligible to start receiving these vouchers.

The report praises West Virginia not just for its percentage of four-year-olds enrolled, but also for the quality of its state-funded pre-K. The institute said West Virginia is among 13 states whose programs meet at least nine of the institute’s 10 quality benchmarks.

“Less than 9% of children enrolled in state-funded preschool attend a program that meets nine or 10 quality standards benchmarks, leaving too many children in programs that do not meet the minimum standards for preschool quality,” the report says.

Also, the report says West Virginia is among just four states, plus D.C., that “fund their programs at a level that could support a full-day, high-quality program paying teacher salaries comparable to K-12.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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