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New NIEER Research: Has The Time Arrived For All Children to Have Access to High Quality Preschool?

June 24, 2004

New Brunswick, NJ – A new research report released today examines the pros and cons of making publicly funded preschool programs available to all children versus only those who are at risk of failure. Making programs available to all, the findings suggest, could provide multiple benefits by improving the early education of disadvantaged children and at the same time reducing education problems that are surprisingly common among middle-income children. The researchers analyzed a broad spectrum of research and found no clear divide between disadvantaged and middle-income children in terms of either their need for or access to preschool education.

“It isn’t just children from families in poverty who would benefit from greater access to quality preschool,” said Dr. Steve Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) and co-author of the new report, “The Universal vs. Targeted Debate: Should the United States Have Preschool for All?” He and colleagues examined data demonstrating a “continuum of need” for preschool in families across the economic spectrum. “There is substantial room for most children to improve school readiness through better preschool education,” said Barnett.

The report’s authors suggest that the case for building upon or expanding targeted programs such as Head Start is compelling: Middle-income children have rates of grade repetition (12%) and high school dropout (11%) that are remarkably high. Preschool increases early reading and math skills, decreases grade repetition and ultimately translates to successful outcomes later in school and in life. The report concludes the current system of targeted programs for disadvantaged children and private preschool programs for other families “leaves out an unacceptably high number of children.”

Lack of access to quality preschool programs by families who do not qualify for targeted programs leads the researchers to conclude that states should strongly consider expanding beyond targeted programs. Not only would preschool programs for all children catch families missed by targeted programs, there is evidence the diversity they bring to the classroom pays dividends. One study found that low-income children in economically integrated preschool programs had much larger language gains than their counterparts in programs that served only low-income children.

Barnett and colleagues conclude that voluntary preschool for all should build upon the successes achieved by targeted programs such as Head Start. “It is time for our nation to expand prekindergarten beyond targeted programs to prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-old children,” said Barnett. “The costs of failing to serve children who could benefit are far higher than the costs saved by limiting participation.”

But, there are dangers associated with the transition from targeted to voluntary universal programs. The study points out that program quality might be diluted in an effort to serve a larger population causing low-income children to be more poorly served as programs are aimed at middle-income children. The report cautions policymakers considering preschool for all that:

  • High quality standards for all children are required if preschool for all is to be effective. States should not compromise program quality in order to accelerate moving toward universal coverage, but move only so fast as maintaining quality allows.
  • Targeting more intensive services toward specific populations within universal programs (e.g. children in poverty) may be needed to ensure that these children benefit fully from voluntary universal prekindergarten programs.
  • As policymakers confront the costs associated with universal preschool programs, they may wish to expand toward universality by gradually raising thresholds of eligibility for targeted programs.

Public support for preschool education is growing across the country, with 40 states now funding preschool programs that enroll more than 600,000 children. Oklahoma and Georgia are currently the only states with universal preschool programs in place. West Virginia adopted a plan to provide universal preschool for 4-year-olds by the 2012-13 school year and Florida’s voters approved universal preschool by 2005. Providing universal preschool for all 3-and-4-year-olds in the U.S. would require roughly $30 billion, which represents about 1 percent of total government spending.


Authors of the policy brief are Barnett, professor of economics and public policy at Rutgers University, NIEER assistant director Kirsty Brown and Bank Street College of Education professor Rima Shore. Copies of The Universal vs. Targeted Debate: Should the United States Have Preschool for All? are available at or from the National Institute For Early Education Research, 120 Albany Street, Suite 500 New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901. Contact Carol Shipp, Deputy Director at (732) 932-4350 x225 or Pat Ainsworth, Communications Director at (732) 932-4350 x229.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (, a unit of Rutgers University, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. NIEER is supported through grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others.

The Pew Charitable Trusts ( serve the public interest by providing information, policy solutions and support for civic life. Based in Philadelphia, with an office in Washington, D.C., the Trusts make investments to provide organizations and citizens with fact-based research and practical solutions for challenging issues. With approximately $4.1 billion in dedicated assets, in 2003 the Trusts committed more than $143 million to 151 nonprofit organizations.