Across the country, state-funded preschool is in a “state of emergency,” according to the annual survey of Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research. Access to high quality preschool during the 2011-12 school year was the worst it has been in a decade. After a decade of growth, enrollment in pre-K increased by fewer than 10,000 and did not keep pace with population growth. Total state funding on pre-K declined by more than a half-billion dollars, falling below $4,000 per child for the first time since 2002. A mere 15 states provided enough funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards.

Among the findings, 37 percent of 4-year-olds in Ohio and 20 percent of 3-year-olds had access to state-funded preschool. Spending per child was a shade above the national average of $3,841. Ohio met just three of the quality benchmarks.

The report shows a nation that talks a better game on childhood education than it pays for. Research continues to highlight the long-term benefits of early education. Children who have had the benefit of high quality preschool experience are better prepared socially and academically for regular school. They are more likely to complete school, with higher achievement levels.

But the NIEER survey underscores the essential factor federal and state policymakers need to remember: “The promised high economic returns associated with these positive outcomes have only been found for programs that were adequately funded and met or exceeded the benchmarks for quality set out in our report.”

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a partnership with states to improve quality and access to preschool for all 4-year olds in low- and moderate-income families. The program is estimated to cost $75 billion over 10 years, to be funded with additional taxes on tobacco products. Over time, spending on high quality early education is estimated to yield a 7 percent to 10 percent return — in increased productivity and in reduced social spending on a spectrum of educational and social services, from remediation and delinquency to law enforcement. It would be smart to invest early in education.