Widening Gap in Pre-K Access: Haves and Have Nots

Mountains of evidence over years of study have shown that high-quality preschool education helps put kids on the right track for future success in school and beyond, especially those children from low-income families or facing other challenges that put them at a disadvantage.  It could not be clearer, though, from our 2011 State Preschool Yearbook that the disparities in state-funded pre-K are so great as to exacerbate lifelong inequalities among children.

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained at the Yearbook 2011 release, “High-quality early learning is what we want for our own children—which means that it must be what we want for all children.” Despite the impressive enrollment growth in state-funded preschool—nearly doubling to 1.3 million children in a decade—recession-driven funding cuts have made it difficult to give this opportunity to all children.

Using data from the 2011 Yearbook, GOVERNING Magazine created a map that highlights these disparities. States are shaded based on the percent of their 3- and 4-year-old population served in state-funded pre-K. Eleven states offered no state-funded pre-K in the 2010-2011 school year, including Arizona, which became the first state to completely remove it state-funded pre-K program. Of the 39 states that do provide these programs, an additional 15 did not enroll 3-year-olds, which drives down their percentage served compared to the measure of 4-year-olds served. For example, Florida is ranked number 1 in enrollment for reaching 76 percent of its 4-year-olds, a percentage that is slashed in half to 38 percent when combined with 3-year-olds.

Map from GOVERNING magazine. Click here to use it interactively.

This map is a great tool for some quick looks at regional trends—you can quickly see the “hot spots” for enrollment, including the Wisconsin-Illinois-Iowa trio in the Midwest; the “not so hot spots,” such as the Midwest duo of Michigan and Ohio; and the cold spots, including seven Western states that do not offer programs at all. Additional details on enrollment and spending can be found by clicking on the individual state.

Enrollment, however, only tells part of the story: programs of high-quality are necessary to guarantee long-term gains, but quality varies startlingly from state to state. During the 2010-2011 year, only five states met all 10 of our quality standards benchmarks (Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island), while at the other end of the spectrum, Ohio met only 2. California and Florida met only 3 benchmarks each, which is particularly concerning given that these programs serve each serve more than 100,000 children, including large populations of Hispanic children.

How many preschoolers a program can enroll and what program standards it can effectively meet (i.e., not just on paper) are inherently linked to the funding available. Disparities in resources across states have persisted, contributing to the “haves” and “have nots” in state-funded pre-K. In the report’s executive summary, we say, “Disparities among the states in funding per child are substantial and persistent. In 2001, the difference in spending per child from the highest spending state to the lowest was nearly $9,000. Today, the range is more than $10,000. Massachusetts and Ohio had erratic changes in spending from one year to the next over the decade, but both states ended the period with decreases in pre-K spending of more than $3,000. By contrast, Arkansas and Maryland increased per-child spending over the decade by more than $2,000 each.” Quality, enrollment, and resources do not exist in a vacuum—each factor influences the others in ways that differ by state, but it is clear that too many states are not providing enough per-child funding to ensure quality for the children enrolled in their pre-K programs.

In order to explore these trends more fully, we’ve created a Google Motion chart of interactive Yearbook data. We encourage you to use this animated tool to explore pre-loaded variables on quality, access, and resources across states; you can select a particular state of interest to track its progress relative to other states.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNThfLkh0uk]Using our interactive data set via Google Motion Charts, the video above demonstrates the relationship between quality standards met by a state and the state per-child spending over time. On the whole, it’s clear that states have shifted toward meeting more quality standards in 2010-2011 than they did in 2001-2002, though per-child funding has by and large stayed below what is needed to implement these standards and ensure teachers are paid a competitive wage, as presented in Table 7 of the Yearbook.

Education has always been largely funded and controlled at state and local levels, which allows for greater flexibility and a focus based on local needs. However, there is no doubt that such large disparities among states prevent the benefits of early childhood education from reaching all children who could benefit. Given the increasing mobility of American society, the failings of one state to prepare children today is to the detriment of another state’s workforce down the line. We encourage all stakeholders in early childhood education to look at the data not just for their state, but for other states, and reach across state lines to bring best practices home and to their neighbors.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


  1. Let the “have’s” pay for private preschool. Despite what you claim, there are plenty of high quality, affordable private preschools out there. Let the government take care of the “have nots” by providing high quality programs targeted directly towards them. The research is clear, it is the poor and at risk that benefit from government funded preschool programs. Stop overgeneralizing the benefits to the larger population to gain political support. Use limited resources wisely and apply them towards improving and broadening services to those who would benefit most.


    • Hi Cindy,

      Thanks for your comment; we appreciate hearing the opinions of others. Please note that in this particular blog post, we were using “haves” and “have nots” to refer to states’ levels of access to pre-K programs — not to the economic situations of families with preschoolers.

      However, that said, research does indicate that preschool has benefits for all children, not just children from low-income families. For instance, this policy report discusses the benefits of pre-K for children from middle-income families: https://nieer.org/publications/policy-reports/policy-report-benefits-prekindergarten-middle-income-children The research on Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program is quite clear in this regard as well.

      It is a mistake to think that all children from middle-income families are just fine. Many start kindergarten more poorly prepared than the average child in poverty. And, if we look at the other end of the education pipeline, it is clear that most high school dropouts are not poor. We can’t solve the school readiness and failure problem by just focusing on the poor.

      It also is incorrect to assert that there are plenty of high-quality pre-K programs in the private sector. While there are some, recent studies including this one from Rand (http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR539.html) indicate that high-quality preschool is far from widely available to middle and higher income families, much less those who live above the poverty line but still can’t afford a quality pre-K.

      In addition, targeting is not particularly successful. It falsely assumes that “the poor” is a fixed population. The truth is that families move in and out of poverty presenting a moving target to any program that is just for the poor. Such programs miss as often as they hit their targets.
      Even in states where resources are prioritized to help “at-risk” children, states are struggling to maintain the funds they need to provide a quality program. Also, even while many states partner with private centers, children still lack access to quality pre-K programs.

      Research also demonstrates that targeted programs do not reach all of the children they are intended to benefit. As our State Preschool Yearbook shows, 11 states do not have state-funded preschool programs at all; another two (Alaska and Rhode Island) have small pilot programs operating in a limited range of communities and reaching only 1 to 2 percent of the preschool population. In addition to these 13 states, 8 other states serve less than 10 percent of their 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K. This is at a time when 11.7 million (46 percent) of children under age 6 live in low-income families (http://nccp.org/publications/pub_972.html).

      – NIEER

      • NIEER

        I am loaded with questions.

        Who conducts the research? Who defines what quality is? NIEER and those associated with them? When conducting research (specifically to prices and average cost) are we comparing apples to apples. i.e Daycare, preschool, full day, half day? The same question would apply for benefits. Did kids go half day or full day? Did programs include wrap around services that Perry Preschool and other models had. Has there been any comprehensive and unbiased research comparing private preschools to government funded? If so, please provide me with this information, I would love to read it.

        Oklahoma is not doing as well as you claim.


        How will we fund programs? You are correct, many states are struggling to maintain existing programs yet you advocate expanding their responsibilities. Here in New York, “universal” pre-k is NOT “universal”, despite trying to implement the program for over 15 years. Why? the state can’t afford to fund it. Selection is done via a random lottery and those most in need can be turned away.

        Obama’s plan has it right. Prioritized funding to reach those most in need NOW, instead of leaving the most vulnerable behind in hopes to build an unattainable program. Because THAT is the reality in New York. It’s not about what is best for the kids, it’s about power and politics.


      • A couple of comments regarding the links you posted. The policy report regarding benefits to middle class kids was written by NIEER, an organization created entirely for the purpose of conducting research to gain political support for universal pre-k programs.

        The Rand study speaks of one state, California. Again, another over generalization. You take one study, from one state and assert your claims. And…. This study was partially funded by NIEER and uses the quality benchmarks laid out by NIEER.

        Your final link illustrates why it is so important to prioritize to those most in need. Poverty is overwhelming and complex. A few hours of preschool won’t solve the problems associates with it. I understand people move in and out of poverty. This is why the boundaries of those who can qualify for these programs must be broadened so that we can reach more kids.

        • Cindy,

          We will try to unpack your questions but there is a bit of vagueness when you refer to “research” generically. The quality and effectiveness of pre-K has been studied for several decades by numerous organizations including us at NIEER as well as Georgetown University, HighScope Research Foundation, and the Frank Porter Graham Institute, to name just a few. To go in to an explanation of the methodology used in every single report by every one of these organizations would not be appropriate in the context of a comments section to a blog. As for the State Preschool Yearbook series, which is the data source used for most of this blog, we make every effort to make measures across states as comparable as possible.

          Studies of Oklahoma’s program have shown it to be an effective one: http://www.crocus.georgetown.edu/publications.html. If all students are not doing well on NAEP scores, there are other factors which may play into this, including the quality of education children receive once they hit K-12, as pointed out in that segment by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi. At any rate, the News on 6 report is somewhat problematic in that it refers to the California corrections system determining the number of prison beds by the number of kids failing to read on grade level by third grade – a statement that has been unmasked as an urban myth (http://www.oregonlive.com/education/index.ssf/2010/03/prisons_dont_use_reading_score.html & http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/an-urban-myth-that-should-be-true/259329/).

          As for how to fund programs, learning from states that do enroll a large percentage of preschool-age children is key. We have seen states add pre-K to their school funding formula like they do for K-12 education as well as innovative approaches including funding pre-K through taxes on tobacco, gambling, or other “sin” taxes. The bottom line is that states that choose to make preschool education a priority will find a way to fund it, just as they do for other items in their budget. It is worth noting that we do not advocate that states expand pre-K access if they will skimp on funding and therefore quality in doing so; that pre-K education be of high quality is a point we stress frequently. In fact, in reference to New York’s UPK program, NIEER Director Steven Barnett has succinctly said “quality must not be sacrificed in pursuit of quantity.” (http://preschoolmatters.org/2013/03/07/fulfilling-the-promise-of-universal-pre-k/)

          While we agree that New York’s UPK program still has ways to go before becoming truly universal, New York is one of the top 10 states in terms of the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded preschool. In addition, the governor has recently recommended increased funding to expand the program. When implementing its UPK program, New York could have taken the route that the President’s plan is slated to follow of prioritizing enrollment based on risk factors such as income, but that was not what the state chose to do. It is problematic that children most in need can be turned away via the lottery process, but that is not a reason for the state to reduce the number of slots available or stop any plans for expansion; rather that is a reason why the state should move forward with expanding access so that all children can be enrolled. (It’s worth noting that the most economically disadvantaged children are also eligible for the federal Head Start program if they cannot get into the state-funded UPK program, although we do of course know that the Head Start program often has wait lists.) It’s also worth noting that the President’s plan is not intended to be a targeted plan only as the proposal intends to support states in their expansion of preschool as programs grow closer toward universal access.

          As for the links we shared earlier, it is not unreasonable that we would share our own work! We are confident that our work represents unbiased, nonpartisan reports based on the research. While we were created to conduct research on preschool education, we were not established solely “to gain political support for universal pre-K programs.” Our opinions and advice to policymakers is always based on what the research says, and our research focuses on more than just access to preschool.

          As for the Rand study reporting only on California – this would be an over-generalization if this were the only piece of research out there. However, there are many other evaluations of state pre-K programs out there. It is not unreasonable to extrapolate for the nation based on these numerous reports; indeed most of scientific research is based on extrapolating data from a limited – although statistically significant – pool. As for the study using the same quality benchmarks we use, these benchmarks are based on research from many other organizations in to what makes an effective preschool program; they are not something we arrived at based on opinion.

          Poverty is overwhelming and complex, and undoubtedly preschool alone is not the only answer to solving it. However, to say that it won’t solve any of the problems associated with poverty is just incorrect. Decades of research show us that children who attend pre-K are more likely to graduate high school, go to college, earn more money, and are less likely to be welfare recipients or sent to prison. Those are all problems associated with poverty that pre-K has been proven to help alleviate. With this in mind, your final statement rings true then: “the boundaries of those who can qualify for these programs must be broadened so that we reach more kids.” We are of the same opinion, based on the research we have conducted as well as the research we’ve read from others that shows the long-term importance of preschool.


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