Our Insights

Cities Emerge as Preschool Champions

Support for public funding of high-quality preschool is near universal; elected officials from both parties at all levels of government, business people, law enforcement professionals, military leaders, pediatricians, neuroscientists, educators and developmental researchers all understand the benefits of a good education for young children. These benefits go beyond the early years and education as preschool lays a stronger foundation for later social and economic success and even improved physical health.

For example, research shows children who attend preschool are healthier, develop better health behaviors, and are more likely to access health care of all kinds and receive better nutrition. Lower stress in early childhood has been linked to lower incidence of adult cardiac disease. Adults who attended strong preschool have been found to be less likely to smoke and engage in other behaviors that have high health risks.

However, progress toward full participation in high-quality preschool is slow. Currently, less than a third of 4-year-olds and an even smaller percentage of 3-year-olds have access to high-quality pre-k–the kind of pre-k that leads to lasting benefits, based on national data. NIEER calculates that at the current rate of growth in state-funded pre-K, it would take 150 years to reach 75 percent enrollment.

A bright spot in this otherwise gloomy outlook is the expansion of locally funded preschool programs.

Although city-funded early care and education is not new, the focus in some cities has shifted from providing access to child care to improving children’s education and health outcomes. Over the past decade, high-profile city initiatives have emerged, notably: the trailblazer Boston with a strong evidence base for effectiveness; New York City’s universal provision for 4-year-olds and nascent universal program for 3-year-olds; Philadelphia’s program funded by a tax on sugary drinks; San Antonio’s sales tax initiative; and, Seattle’s levy-funded preschool program.

While these initiatives are as varied as the cities themselves, all were motivated by common concerns—the importance of early learning for school readiness, development and lifelong health; addressing inequality of access to preschool and skills at kindergarten entry; and the high cost of quality preschool programs. Yet even across new initiatives intended to be educational, quality and access vary considerably.

CityHealth, an initiative of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, just published a national report showing how the 40 largest US cities are doing on providing high-quality preschool, along with eight other key policies proven to improve quality of life.

In CityHealth’s analysis, cities earned gold, silver, bronze, or no medal, based on the number and strength of policies in areas including quality preschool, affordable housing, complete streets, earned sick leave, alcohol sales, zoning and clean indoor air. This year, Boston, Charlotte, Nashville, New York, and San Antonio earned gold medals for access to quality preschool.

In the United States, the strong local government role in education means cities often have led the way in expanding access to education. Cities were the first to establish the comprehensive high school. Cities were first with community colleges. Child care was also traditionally a local concern. Today, the innovative frontier for a better education is in the early years.

States also play a key role. Enrollment in state-funded preschool programs has more than doubled since 2002—with more than 1.5 million children now enrolled nationwide, according to The State of Preschool 2017 report. Local school districts often partner in funding and providing these programs. However, in very few states have enrollment and funding reached the needed level. Since 2002 spending-per-child actually decreased when adjusted for inflation, making it difficult to provide high quality.

Access to high quality varies widely across the country. Seven states do not invest in preschool programs; and some of the state programs with the lowest quality standards serve the largest numbers of children. This failure to invest in quality preschool is taking a toll.

Access to preschool remains highly unequal with low-income and minority children having the least access to good preschool programs, and improvement has been painfully slow (Nores & Barnett, 2014). This has long-term consequences: large gaps in the social determinants of education and health between the rich and everyone else, and between white NonHispanics and others, are generated before children ever walk through the kindergarten door (Friedman-Krauss & Barnett, 2013).

Why should cities be concerned? The simple answer is that cities have far more of the children and families who suffer from this inequality of opportunity and its long-term consequences. Cities will benefit most from correcting the problem.

Key preschool stakeholders also see city-funded programs as one avenue to moving state policy that is fair for all children. As cities develop high-quality and effective preschool, advocates hope state policymakers and the public beyond the city see the value and support pre-K expansion.

See NIEER press release

Steven Barnett, Ph.D. is a Board of Governors Professor and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. His research includes studies of the economics of early care and education including costs and benefits, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development, and the distribution of educational opportunities. Dr. Barnett earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Michigan.

GG Weisenfeld Ed.D. is an Assistant Research Professor at NIEER working on the annual State of Preschool Yearbook, preparing state pre-K reports and researching and offering technical assistance on designing and implementing early childhood policies and programs. Her research interests include early childhood system alignment and fiscal policies; leadership; and identifying and measuring quality indicators. She previously held the position of Hawaii’s Director of the Executive Office on Early Learning in the Office of the Governor.

Ellen Frede, Ph. D., is Senior Co-Director of NIEER. As a co-developer of child and classroom assessment tools and complementary integrated curriculum and professional development systems, Dr. Frede views ECE systems development from multiple lenses: research, utilization focused evaluation, staff development, and teaching and learning. She holds a doctorate in developmental psychology, a master’s degree in human development and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

The Authors

W. Steven (Steve) Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and the founder and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. Dr. Barnett’s work primarily focuses on public policies regarding early childhood education, child care, and child development.

GG Weisenfeld is a Senior ECE Policy Specialist at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education. 

In her work, Dr. Frede applies what she has learned throughout her varied career in early childhood education, including experience as a teacher of ages 0-8, curriculum and professional development specialist at the HighScope Foundation, teacher educator at The College of New Jersey, researcher, pre-k administrator for the New Jersey Department of Education, education lead in a large Head Start grantee and early learning lead at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.