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What is Universal Pre-K?

“Universal pre-k,” also known as “preschool access for all,” ensures any family who wants to enroll their preschool-aged child in a publicly-funded, pre-kindergarten care and education program has the opportunity to make that choice.

Such programs provide early care and education the year before children enter kindergarten, although some also serve three-year-olds. There are a variety of funding mechanisms — federal, state, and local — that can make universal pre-k a reality. Unlike the traditional public education system, many states allow programs outside the public school system (e.g., private and faith-based child care centers) to receive funding to operate pre-k.

Why is it good policy?

Brain Science. Early childhood brain science shows that crucial intellectual, health, and social emotional development is happening long before age 5 — the year we begin formal education in the United States. Numerous studies show that young children, from infancy onward, are learning all the time, whatever setting they are in—whether it’s in an early care and education program or at home with a parent or other caregiver. Children who experience early care and education programs that provide consistent, nurturing, and developmentally-appropriate opportunities for cognitive and social development benefit significantly in both the short and long-term, and children from low-income families benefit the most. These benefits have positive impacts not only on children and families, but also on our broader communities as we educate the next generation.

Family Economics. Early care and education has become either an unmanageable expense or practically unavailable for many families who need or want it. This lack of high-quality offerings can keep parents from pursuing the additional education or job training that could build their incomes, and it often means one parent opts out of the workforce entirely to provide care, even when both parents need or want to work. Widely available early care and education can be a strong economic foundation for families and communities. Widely accessible high-quality pre-k can also help reduce racial inequity. The disparity in access to high-quality early education exacerbates racial inequities in children’s development. Not only does this limit the child’s ability to achieve, it also limits parents’ ability to maximize their incomes by working, which further impacts a child’s opportunity.

What are some concerns?

Quality. As states work to expand access to pre-k, they must work diligently to ensure the quality of the program(s). The National Institute for Early Education Research maintains a list of baseline quality standards, which includes maximum class sizes, minimum acceptable professional development, and other benchmarks. Importantly, quality standards should also be centered on families’ lived experience and needs, especially those from communities that are traditionally underserved, disenfranchised, and oppressed by systemic racism and sexism. As such, pre-k systems should promote culturally and linguistically responsive practices and support quality programs in diverse settings.There are numerous routes to preschool for all in a state, but they should all include a strategy for quality.

The Child Care Market. Across the United States, communities grapple with weak (and often non-viable) child-care infrastructure. The market economics of the system mean that many providers would struggle even more if three- and four-year-olds moved to a different program – leaving them with primarily infant care, which is the most expensive to deliver. Expansion of pre-k must be undertaken with an attention to the impact on the state’s child care providers and work to sustain and strengthen the broader early care and education system.

State News: 

New Mexico: Participation in State’s Pre-K Program Corresponds with Improved Reading and Math Proficiency in Later Years

Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 2023

A new statewide study in New Mexico that found several long-term impacts corresponding with state-run prekindergarten participation, including an increase in high school graduation rates and improved reading and math proficiency at third, sixth, and eighth grades. Read More >>

Indiana: Pre-K Students See Academic Benefits Through Fourth Grade, Study Shows

ChalkBeat, 2022

A long-term study of Indiana’s On My Way Pre-K found its students were better prepared for kindergarten and scored slightly higher on ILEARN than children from similar low-income backgrounds. Read More >>

Alabama: The Persistence of Reading and Math Proficiency: The Benefits of Alabama’s Pre-Kindergarten Program Endure in Elementary and Middle School

Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 2020

University of Alabama researchers undertook a first-of-its-kind study using multivariable linear regression to determine the impact of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program. The findings indicate that children who received the program were statistically significantly more likely to be proficient in both math and reading compared to students who did not. Read More>>

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