Research Report

Public Pre-K Financial Landscape

The view of preschool as welfare influences the way preschool education is financed and helps explain why the US doesn’t offer every child a quality preschool education. Preschool funding is much more heavily dependent on a patchwork of federal programs — a tradition more reflective of social insurance programs than public education, which is primarily a state and local responsibility. As a result in most states preschool programs including Head Start and subsidized child care target only the most vulnerable young children — a noble goal for sure, but even these programs fail to reach most of the intended beneficiaries and funding levels are far from adequate for a quality early education.

If the US public was more convinced of the educational value of pre-K, would we see more state and local financial resources being invested? It seems likely.  Most states do provide some funding for preschool and child care, but local funding is much less common.  By contrast, 45% of public K-12 education comes from local taxes, the large majority from property tax receipts. State resources account for another 47% of spending. The rest — just 8% — is filled by federal funds.  If the local share for early childhood programs were equal to that for K-12, funding for state pre-K programs would just about double.

Taking a broader view including Head Start and state funded pre-K, just over half of the dollars come from federal government financing (51%), with states providing 39% and just 9% deriving from local sources. With a few notable exceptions, such as Maine, Oklahoma, and West Virginal, most states have virtually no local tax support for public early education programs.