Public preschool enrollment fell slightly last year, according to a report released today by researchers at Rutgers University.

About 9,000 fewer children attended public pre-K programs in 2013 than in 2012, the report from the university's National Institute for Early Education Researchsays. It's the first time since researchers began examining this issue in 2002 that the numbers have fallen.

The decline is surprising, given the increasing public discussion about the importance of early childhood education. But it also comes at a time of budget shortfalls. Overall, there were almost half a billion dollars in budget cuts to state early education programs in the previous year, 2011-2012. The reported decline also doesn't yet reflect high-profile expansions to these types of programs underway in states such as Iowa,Michigan, Minnesota, Alabama, and New York.

Overall, about 28 percent of four year olds, and 4 percent of three year olds, currently attend public Pre-K programs. At the press announcement of the report, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that the U.S. ranks near the bottom among industrialized nations in the percentage of three and four year olds enrolled in pre-school.

"If we are going to lead in a globally competitive economy, we must do better," said Duncan. In countries such as Germany and Japan more than 95 percent of four year olds are enrolled in early childhood education.

But access to early education isn't the only issue. As we reported in our special series on the high quality preschool program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the quality of these programs, if anything, matters even more.

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