According to the report, 19 percent of the region's 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded pre-K. That number compares to 12 percent in the Northeast, 9 percent in the Midwest and 5.6 percent in the West.
The foundation's report analyzed several independent studies done in the South over the past decade of state-supported pre-K programs, shown to be critical in shaping a child's future. Though the report acknowledges that there are different benchmarks for measuring quality pre-K programs, it found that all six states requiring full-day pre-K programs are in the South and that nine southern states fund pre-K above the national average cost per child.
"Pre-K is a long-term, essential strategy for closing the gap on the quality of life between the South and the rest of the country, said Steve Suitts, program coordinator for the Southern Education Foundation and one of the authors of the study.
"Pre-K is not all that should be done, but an essential part of what must be done," Suitts said. "Pre-K is where the South can finally break this long pattern."
Results are already being seen in several states:
â€¢A Georgetown University study of Oklahoma's pre-K program showed that minority and low-income children in the program made the largest gains in early learning skills like letter-word identification, spelling and problem solving. The same study showed that pre-K students in every racial and ethnic group outperformed those without pre-K.
â€¢A Georgia State University study showed that even compared to children in Head Start or private preschool programs, children in state-funded pre-K in Georgia were the least likely to repeat kindergarten.
â€¢Long-term studies of the North Carolina preschool program Abecedarian showed that its pre-K students were almost three times more likely to go to a four-year college than students without pre-K.
Still, only one in five children eligible for state-funded programs is enrolled in the South. And the three leading Southern states - Oklahoma, Georgia and Texas - may be in danger of losing the ground they had gained. An increase in the number of eligible children in those states has not led to increased funding and availability of programs.
The key to raising those numbers is more awareness of the benefits of pre-K for lawmakers and parents, foundation officials say.
The South got its lead, in part, because it began public pre-K programs before other parts of the country, which allowed an earlier chance to see results, said Andrea Young, the Southern Education Foundation senior program officer.
"That fit the notion in the South that pre-K was a proven value," Young said.
The national movement to establish state-supported pre-K as the foundation of early childhood education for a large number of children started in the early 1990s. Georgia and Oklahoma pioneered the first statewide pre-K programs in the country. In 1995, Zell Miller - then Georgia's governor - expanded pre-K from a program that served only low-income children to a universal program available all 4-year-olds in the state. By the late 1990s, Oklahoma had done the same.
Today, Mississippi is the only Southern state with no state-funded pre-K program.
The success of state-funded pre-K programs depends largely upon state legislatures and governors, foundation officials say. For example, the report lauds Arkansas' efforts between 2001 and 2007, when the state quadrupled its enrollment from 4 percent of its 3- and 4-year-olds to 17 percent.
With the announcement of its findings, the Southern Education Foundation also called for more uniform standards of high-quality pre-K.
The foundation says all high-quality programs should at least have these benchmarks: a healthy, child-friendly environment; effective, highly qualified teachers; a practice of proven learning and teaching approaches; a strong curriculum; small classes with a relatively low child-to-teacher ratio and meaningful parent involvement.