Access to High-Quality Pre-K Severely Limited for Children from Lower Middle-Income Families

Washington, DC, Aug. 9—When schools open this year, working families with household incomes in the $30,000 to $50,000 range will be hard-pressed to afford high-quality preschool education for their children.

W. Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), speaking to an early education panel today at the National Research Council, said that most government-funded preschool programs severely limit access to children from middle-income working families.

“Upper-income families can afford the best private preschool education. Head Start and the majority of state pre-K programs are offered free of charge to children from very low- or no-income families. Left out are the children whose parents earn enough to get by, but cannot afford the high-quality preschool education that would benefit their children,” Barnett said.

Barnett’s comments accompanied the release of eligibility requirements in the 38 states that offer state-funded prekindergarten programs (see chart). The 12 states that do not fund pre-K are Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

The federally funded Head Start program provides preschool education for 3- and 4-year-old children in families at or below the federal poverty level, which is an annual income of $20,650 or less for a family of four. Due to lack of federal funding Head Start serves only half of the eligible children.

Many states have either no income ceiling or a relatively high income ceiling, yet still serve few children. “While it might appear that some state pre-K programs are open to all or most families, the reality is that programs are funded at levels that reach only a small percentage of the state’s children. Other than Florida, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, Georgia and Oklahoma, many states either have programs too small to serve many children at moderate income levels or serve primarily disadvantaged families because of other conditions,” said Barnett.

Many states set pre-k eligibility based on eligibility for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program. For a family of four, the maximum allowable income for a reduced price lunch is $38,202; for a free lunch it’s $26,845.

Six states set their income eligibility requirements higher than $38,202 for a family of four. In Massachusetts it’s $108,434, with preference given to families making less than $43,374; Connecticut, $66,989; Michigan $51,625; California, $47,495; North Carolina $45,227; and Arkansas, $41,300. The bottom end includes Washington at $22,725 and Delaware, Minnesota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin’s state-supported head start program at the poverty level, $20,650.

In Connecticut, Massachusetts and North Carolina, children’s eligibility depends on the family’s income as a percentage of the state median income.

“Too many hard working American families are not able to reap the benefits of quality pre-kindergarten for their children,” said Sara Watson, senior program officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided funding for this project. “Our country can not afford to leave these children unprepared for school. States must ensure that all families who want their children to attend quality pre-kindergarten are able to do so.”

Income is not the only eligibility requirement for children to attend either Head Start or state pre-K programs. Children with disabilities are frequently eligible. In many states, other risk factors such as teenage parents or family drug or alcohol abuse problems make children eligible for state preschool education programs.

Ten states or local jurisdictions within those states require or permit fees for state pre-K that are tied to income. Some states employ sliding fee scales that rise with income while others charge fees to families earning above the income eligibility standard. In some cases, children from families earning above the income eligibility level must still have another risk factor.

A further complication for families trying to determine if their children are eligible for state pre-K programs is that several states defer to local communities or school districts to set eligibility requirements.

“This patchwork quilt of regulations makes drawing conclusions difficult, but one thing is crystal clear: most middle-income families have to pay for preschool education on their own,” Barnett said. “Many such families have no alternative to second-rate programs which can have lasting impacts on the children’s success in school and beyond. All children deserve the proven benefits of high-quality preschool which is simply beyond the reach of many families without help.”

Research finds that children from middle-income families enter kindergarten significantly behind children from higher-income households. For some of these children from middle-income families, problems mount as they grow older.

About one in 10 middle-income children repeat a grade or fail to complete high school.

Research shows that high-quality preschool education programs can reduce later grade retention and dropout rates. “America cannot afford to lose one in 10 children from middle-income families to school failure and a lifetime of limited economic productivity,” Barnett said.

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The National Institute for Early Education Research (, a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, 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 ( is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.

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