New Jersey spends more money per preschool student than any other state, and delivers a high-quality program, but the state has room to grow when it comes to providing access to preschool, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The Garden State remains a national leader in access for 3-year-olds, according to the report, but ranks 24th nationally in access for 4-year-olds.

"New Jersey enrolls just 28% of 4-year-olds in their high quality preschool program," said Steven Barnett, founder and senior co-director of the Rutgers-based institute.

Nationwide, a third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool programs — still not a great number.

The report, which used data from the 2017-18 academic year, recorded total state funding in New Jersey at nearly $660 million, a decrease of about $16 million from the year prior.

However, pre-K spending was boosted in New Jersey during the 2018-19 academic year. In Gov. Phil Murphy's first budget, a commitment of $83 million was made to New Jersey's youngest learners.

Sixty-four districts received preschool expansion grants for 2018-19. State aid for preschool is currently available to 180 districts. The funding process prioritizes communities with the highest concentrations of poverty.

Murphy's current proposed budget includes $25 million to help additional schools next academic year, as part of $68 million in increased preschool spending.

"The big challenge we have in New Jersey is finding room in the state budget to expand funding so more communities and districts can offer high quality pre-K," Barnett said.

According to the report, only Washington, D.C., spends more per preschool pupil than New Jersey.

The Garden State met eight of 10 quality standards in the report. New Jersey requires a bachelor of arts and salary parity with K-3 for all lead teachers.

Nationally, the report finds, state funding is failing to keep pace with slow increases in enrollment. And just 5.5 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool programs nationwide.

"In the preschool world we give grades like 'needs to improve.' Overall, that's our grade nationally," Barnett said.

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