Center for American Progress

Federal Investment Can Help Close the Preschool-Access Gap

Federal Investment Can Help Close the Preschool-Access Gap

Too few children in America attend preschool programs, but federal investment could bring up rates of enrollment in all states.

In this Friday, March 1, 2013, photo, J'son Hayes works on a computer in his prekindergarten class at a public school in Buffalo, New York. (AP/David Duprey)
In this Friday, March 1, 2013, photo, J'son Hayes works on a computer in his prekindergarten class at a public school in Buffalo, New York. (AP/David Duprey)

See also: Interactive Map: The Preschool-Access Gap by Juliana Herman, Sasha Post, and Melissa Lazarín

Most states are expanding access to state-funded preschool, but many of these programs developed over the past few years have yet to reach every child. In Mississippi, for example, a bill establishing its first state-funded preschool program is on its way to the governor’s office and awaits his signature. The bill would enable Mississippi to join 39 other states that have established state-funded preschool programs. The new $3 million program, however, will only serve 1,325 4-year-old children in its first year—a mere fraction of the almost 90,000 children in Mississippi preschools.*

As in most states, the Mississippi program will not be available to 3-year-olds. This is why CAP proposed a plan to expand state preschool programs with support from the federal government to all 3- and 4-year-olds. The president outlined his own proposal to expand preschool access, which would be paid for by increasing the taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

States are leading the charge to expand access to preschool, but a significant federal investment will radically increase the reach and quality of these programs.

Too few children are enrolled in state-funded preschools

Vermont leads the country in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds who are enrolled in state-funded preschools, followed by Florida, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Yet even in Vermont, less than half of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool.

In the middle of the pack, Connecticut ranks 25th in state-funded preschool enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds with only 10 percent of children enrolled. And 10 states in addition to Mississippi do not currently have a state-funded preschool program: Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

In many states, the federally funded Head Start program is picking up some of the slack. In Mississippi, for example, one-third of its 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in a prekindergarten program funded almost entirely with Head Start dollars.

State-funded preschool programs play an important role in ensuring that all children, regardless of income, can attend preschool and enter kindergarten ready to learn. But greater access is needed for states to achieve this goal.

Quality in state-funded preschool matters

Access is only one piece of the puzzle. Classrooms must also provide high quality preschool education to teach children the skills they need for kindergarten.

Using the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 10 quality benchmarks, we grouped states based on the quality of their state preschool programs, with additional weight given to whether the state requires all teachers to hold a four-year college degree and specialized training in early childhood education. Those states meeting all benchmarks are rated “excellent” on our interactive map. Those on the cusp are “good” and those with “fair” and “poor” need substantial improvement.

Some states have expanded access but lag behind on quality. Texas enrolls more than 50 percent of its 4-year-olds but is rated “poor” because, among other things, it does not meet the quality standards for class size and staff-to-student ratios.

Other states understand the importance of quality, but too few children are able to participate. Alabama is the leading example in this category. Alabama meets all 10 of the benchmarks in its preschool program, including requirements for preschool teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree and have specialized training in early childhood education, small class sizes, and low staff-to-child ratios. Yet only 3 percent of Alabama’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled.

Some states have made a commitment to both quality and access. Georgia, for example, enrolls a high percentage of 4-year-olds and meets all 10 benchmarks. Similar to Alabama, Georgia requires all teachers to have a college degree and specialized training, assistants to be credentialed, and class sizes and staff-to-student ratios to meet quality standards. The program also provides at least one health service and one meal to students, and programs are evaluated through site visits.

Preschool is hardly the rule for 3- and 4-year-olds

Far too many children do not participate in any sort of preschool program, public or private. In Nevada, for example, only 41 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds are attending a preschool program. Children in low-income families are significantly less likely to be ready for school by age 5 and are also less likely to be enrolled in preschool.

In almost every state enrollment of children below the poverty line lags behind the general population. Nationwide 60 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool, compared to less than 50 percent of children below the poverty line. In total, more than 1 million low-income children do not attend any type of preschool program.

But this doesn’t mean preschool enrollment is necessarily the norm for higher-income children either. In Nevada, Alaska, and Arizona, the majority of 3- and 4-year-old children from families living above the poverty line are not enrolled in a public or private preschool program. While research suggests that low-income children reap the greatest benefits from attending preschool, higher-income children receive some substantial benefits from attending preschool as well.

A federal investment to expand state preschool programs is necessary

States should lead the effort to make high-quality preschool available to all children. States clearly see the value of investing in preschool and are digging deep into their coffers to provide these opportunities to children. But few states are in a financial position to offer all 3- and 4-year-old children voluntary access to high-quality preschool education.

Federal dollars can help states reach this goal. This investment could help jumpstart preschool programs in states without adequate preschools and could also help states with programs reach the lowest-income children. This would free up state dollars to expand access for higher-income children and improve program quality.

Juliana Herman is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Melissa Lazarín is the Director of Education Policy at the Center.

* Unless otherwise noted, similar data were taken from the sources found in our interactive map. Please see the map for more information.

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Juliana Herman

Education Policy Analyst

Melissa Lazarín

Senior Policy Adviser