Policy Brief/Analysis

Universal Pre-K

5 FAQs

Question 1. Why does the United States need Universal Pre-K (UPK)?

High quality preschool has been shown to benefit children from all backgrounds, though it has larger benefits for children in low-income homes. Yet, the United States is not even close to ensuring that all children attend pre-k. Less than 5 million of the nation’s roughly 8 million 3- and 4-year-olds attend any preschool, most of their programs are not high quality, and 45% are part-day. The situation is worse for 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty as more than half do not attend any program, even though Head Start and other targeted programs have been around for more than 50 years. The best way to guarantee that all children in poverty and every other child whose family finds it difficult to pay for high quality preschool can access such programs is through UPK.

Question 2. Will UPK be compulsory, forcing children into government programs and limiting choice?

No. In all 44 states and the District of Columbia that fund pre-K participation is entirely voluntary. Few states even make kindergarten compulsory. Every state but one allows for state-funded pre-K to be delivered by a mixed public-private delivery system. Only DC and Vermont could be said to offer UPK beginning at age 3, but 5 others offer UPK at age 4. In all 7, some families choose not to participate.

Question 3. How much will UPK cost?

NIEER estimates that the national average cost of full-day, high quality pre-K that pays teachers salaries equivalent to K-12 is about $12,500 per child per year. To serve 70% of all 3- and 4-year-olds at this level would cost about $70 billion annually. This is more than a $50 billion increase over current public funding.  Limiting additional public funding to those under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, would lower annual cost by about $10 billion. Of course, quality programs cannot be created overnight, program expansion will take time, perhaps 10-20 years to fully provide high quality UPK across the entire nation. That means cost would climb gradually toward these estimated levels over time. Finally, if some parents preferred part-day programs the cost would be less but this percentage is likely to be small. Less than 20% of kindergarten is part-day.

Question 4. How many new teachers will UPK require, and can they be recruited?

To enroll 70 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds, the USA needs 40,000 to 50,000 new classrooms with at least one teacher per classroom (and an assistant). Over 10 years, this would be no more than 5,000 new teachers per year. A larger problem is that about half the teachers of the 5 million children currently enrolled need some additional education to complete a BA degree with specialized training in early childhood, about 125,000 teachers. Given adequate supports, current teachers could increase their qualifications and receive the higher pay and benefits they deserve. This would be transformative not just for ECE quality but for the lives of the workforce themselves, and New Jersey has demonstrated this can be done within five years. These numbers are modest relative to the total preschool teacher pool. More than 540,000 preschool teachers (some serving children under age 3) and 22,000 preschool special education teachers were employed in 2019. Many other preschool teachers have left the field because of the low pay and benefits, and they constitute a reserve pool of teachers that could be attracted back by better pay and working conditions.

Question 5. Will UPK conflict with Head Start and private child care?

No. State-funded pre-K already partners with Head Start and private child care providers to serve approximately 40 percent of its enrollment. This is one reason why state and locally funded pre-K serves more than 2 million 3- and 4-year-olds today, twice the number funded by Head Start and the child care subsidy program combined.