Publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Publicly funded pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs are large-scale efforts to provide school-based early childhood education opportunities to preschool aged children. Programs are voluntary and can be for 3- and 4-year-olds, though programs often only or disproportionately serve 4-year-olds. Publicly funded pre-K programs vary from state to state; they can be universally available regardless of family income or focus on specific populations, usually children from low income backgrounds. Programs also vary based on state early learning standards and guidelines for choosing curricula. Public pre-K programs are typically funded by the state but can be funded by cities and school districts1.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased academic achievement

  • Increased school readiness

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Improved social emotional skills

  • Increased earnings

  • Reduced child care costs

  • Increased labor force participation

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that publicly funded pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs improve school readiness and increase academic achievement1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, especially among children from disadvantaged backgrounds1, 11, 12, 13, 14 and English language learners (ELL)1, 9, 15, 16. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm long-term effects1, 17, 18.

In general, children who attend preschool demonstrate gains in cognitive and social skills19, 20, 21, as well as modest improvements in social-emotional and self-regulatory development1. State-sponsored pre-K programs, whether universal or not, improve children’s language, math, and reading skills3, 4, 5, 6, 22, 23. A meta-analysis of publicly funded pre-K programs that have scaled-up since 2000 found strong positive effects on math and reading scores in the short-term2. One study of Miami-Dade County’s pre-K program suggests pre-K participation can increase school stability, on-time promotions to the next grade, and the likelihood of students in ELL programs moving to non-ELL status, which is associated with faster English acquisition and improved academic success15.

Available evidence suggests participation in Head Start, a publicly funded preschool program for children from low income backgrounds, is associated with large benefits over the long-term, including increased high school completion, college enrollment and completion, economic self-sufficiency, and labor force participation24. Among children from lower income backgrounds, state pre-K enrollment is associated with increased time reading at home and improved test performance, effects may diminish with time but can last through fourth grade in reading and eighth grade in math25. Effects may be more likely to persist for students enrolled in more mature pre-K programs18 or for students who continue to receive interventions through grade school1, 15, especially in high quality classrooms and schools5, 26, 27. In a Georgia-based study, state pre-K participants demonstrated increased academic achievement in 4th grade5. The long-term academic effects of Tennessee’s statewide pre-K program are unclear; some research suggests effects fade over time4; however, other studies show positive effects are maintained for students who went on to have high quality teachers in high quality schools after pre-K28. In an Oklahoma-based study of universal pre-K, positive effects on math achievement, enrollment in honors courses, and grade retention persist through middle school for pre-K participants, although effects on standardized test scores diminish over time7.

State universal pre-K programs are associated with increases in licensed child care availability and enrollment in formal care among 4-year-olds, and enrollment decreases among 3-year-olds29. Attending high quality pre-K increases the likelihood a child will be diagnosed with asthma, hearing, or vision problems and receive treatment30, 31.

Several universal pre-K programs demonstrate stronger effects for Hispanics, Blacks, and children from families with low incomes than for whites and children from families with high incomes12, 32. However, other studies find smaller effects for children that are Hispanic, Black, Native American, or from families with low incomes. Experts suggest since pre-K program quality varies, adjustments are needed to support kindergarten readiness for children of all backgrounds3, 6. Georgia’s universal pre-K program benefits children from families with low incomes in rural areas the most, possibly because they cannot access alternative pre-K programs11. Economically integrated pre-K programs may improve academic achievement more for children from families with low incomes than programs that only serve children from disadvantaged backgrounds32, 33.

One nationwide analysis suggests the strongest effects on academic achievement are associated with high quality pre-K programs and providing pre-K to majority Black neighborhoods34. The quality of pre-K classroom experience varies significantly by community characteristics35. In states with high levels of residential segregation, Black and Hispanic children from low income backgrounds often experience lower quality publicly funded pre-K environments than white children in more affluent areas36. An analysis of New York City’s universal pre-K program found large disparities in provider quality, with white children more likely to experience a high quality provider than Black, Hispanic, and Asian children. Results suggest high quality pre-K providers are less likely to be located in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and that structural changes and quality improvements are needed to improve pre-K programs’ ability to reduce racial achievement gaps and improve educational opportunities in areas with racial residential segregation37.

Some researchers recommend states focus resources on children from families with low incomes and minorities, who will benefit the most from pre-K access11. Others contend that universal pre-K should be promoted as it garners more public support than programs for vulnerable populations12. Offering preschool universally can increase enrollment for children of all income levels. Among families with high incomes, universal programs can reduce child care costs as families enroll their children in public preschool25. Universal pre-K can reach children from lower income backgrounds who do not meet eligibility requirements for targeted programs and otherwise may not enroll in preschool32.

Publicly funded pre-K is associated with increased maternal labor force participation, especially for mothers that are married, college-educated, white non-Hispanic, residents of metropolitan areas, and with income below 200% or above 400% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL)25, 38. For mothers with income below 200% FPL, increased labor force participation may be due to work requirements associated with public assistance programs38. Full day pre-K programs are more likely to encourage maternal labor force participation, with the strongest effects for mothers from non-disadvantaged backgrounds39.

Preliminary evidence indicates that pre-K programs that focus on instruction and coaching learners as they think through tasks can yield more cognitive growth than those focused on child-directed play and exploration40. Explicit academic instruction, low staff-to-student ratios19, good classroom management, and emotional support can improve children’s cognitive and social outcomes41. High quality, successful pre-K programs can support early learning through well implemented, evidence-based curricula, coaching for teachers, initiatives to promote orderly and active classrooms1, and strong instructional and emotional support systems42. Challenges for such programs include staff turnover, student enrollment levels, staff time to complete accountability requirements for public funding, and government regulation changes13.

Available evidence suggests costs vary between programs based on several characteristics such as staffing levels, compensation, program hours, facility costs, curricula investments, and professional development43. In 2020, state pre-K programs spent an average of $5,499 per student in addition to federal and local funding44. One model suggests additional costs for taxpayers would be between $2 and 4 billion annually to increase access to state pre-K programs enough to cover all 4-year-olds currently without access to such programs45. Benefit cost analysis suggests that implementing high quality publicly funded pre-K, especially in majority Black neighborhoods, produces a high net benefit for society34.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated likely to decrease disparities.
Implementation Examples

As of 2020, 44 states and Washington, D.C. have publicly funded pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs that serve over 1.37 million 4-year-olds, about one-third of all 4-year-olds in the country. Eight states served nearly 50% or more of 4-year-olds in their states, and five states enrolled more than 70% of their 4-year-olds44.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) assesses state preschool policies annually using a set of minimum quality standards that focus on process quality (or classroom experiences). Only six states, Alabama, Hawaii, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Rhode Island, meet all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks for preschool quality. Thirteen states meet fewer than half of the benchmarks. Pre-K enrollment has slowed and spending has been reduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; several states now face high risks of funding shortfalls when enrollment rebounds44. As of 2018, only four states, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island, require all preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification, while also requiring equal pay for preschool and K-3 teachers46.

States with more women in the state legislature and higher rates of unemployment are more likely to establish public pre-K programs. States with more Republicans in the state legislature are less likely to adopt public pre-K. Prior investment in pre-K does not appear to be correlated with adoption of publicly funded pre-K47.

Implementation Resources

Pre-K Now - Pre-K Now. Resource center. The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew).

OK-SDE - Oklahoma State Department of Education (OK-SDE). Early childhood and family education.

Brookings-Johnson 2018 - Johnson AD, Phillips DA, Schochet O. The evaluation roadmap for optimizing pre-K programs. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2018.

Child Trends-ECDC - The Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC). Child Trends. Bethesda, MD.


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1 Brookings-Phillips 2017 - Phillips DA, Lipsey MW, Dodge KA, et al. Puzzling it out: The current state of scientific knowledge on pre-kindergarten effects. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2017.

2 DeAngelis 2020 - DeAngelis CA, Holmes Erickson H, Ritter GW. What’s the state of the evidence on pre-k programmes in the United States? A systematic review. Educational Review. 2020;72(4):495-519.

3 Hustedt 2021 - Hustedt JT, Jung K, Friedman-Krauss AH, Barnett WS, Slicker G. Impacts of the New Mexico preK initiative by children’s race/ethnicity. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2021;54:194-203.

4 Pion 2021 - Pion GM, Lipsey MW. Impact of the Tennessee voluntary prekindergarten program on children’s literacy, language, and mathematics skills: Results from a regression-discontinuity design. AERA Open. 2021;7(1).

5 Early 2019 - Early DM, Li W, Maxwell KL, Ponder BD. Participation in Georgia’s pre-k as a predictor of third-grade standardized test scores. AERA Open. 2019;5(2):233285841984868.

6 Montrosse-Moorhead 2019 - Montrosse-Moorhead B, Dougherty SM, La Salle TP, Weiner JM, Dostal HM. The overall and differential effects of a targeted prekindergarten program: Evidence from Connecticut. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2019;48:134-145.

7 Gormley 2018 - Gormley WT, Phillips D, Anderson S. The effects of Tulsa’s pre-K program on middle school student performance. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2018;37(1):63-87.

8 Haslip 2018 - Haslip M. The effects of public pre-kindergarten attendance on first grade literacy achievement: A district study. International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy. 2018;12(1):1-19.

9 Lipsey 2018 - Lipsey MW, Farran DC, Durkin K. Effects of the Tennessee Prekindergarten Program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2018;45:155-176.

10 Hustedt 2015 - Hustedt JT, Jung K, Barnett WS, et al. Kindergarten readiness impacts of the Arkansas better chance state prekindergarten initiative. The Elementary School Journal. 2015;116(2):198-216.

11 Fitzpatrick 2008 - Fitzpatrick MD. Starting school at four: The effect of universal pre-kindergarten on children’s academic achievement. B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy. 2008;8(1).

12 Gormley 2005 - Gormley WT, Phillips D. The effects of universal pre-k in Oklahoma: Research highlights and policy implications. Policy Studies Journal. 2005;33(1):65-82.

13 Dorman 2017 - Dorman RL, Anthony E, Osborne-Fears B, et al. Investing in high quality preschool: Lessons from an urban setting. Early Years. 2017;37(1):91-107.

14 NIEER-Lamy 2005 - Lamy C, Barnett WS, Jung K. The effects of Oklahoma’s early childhood four-year-old program on young children’s school readiness. New Brunswick: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Rutgers University; 2005.

15 Conger 2019 - Conger D, Gibbs CR, Uchikoshi Y, Winsler A. New benefits of public school pre-kindergarten programs: Early school stability, grade promotion, and exit from ELL services. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2019;48:26-35.

16 Peisner-Feinberg 2013 - Peisner-Feinberg E, Schaaf J, LaForett D. Children’s growth and classroom experiences in Georgia’s pre-K program: Findings from the 2011-2012 evaluation study. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute. 2013.

17 Brookings-Whitehurst 2018 - Whitehurst GJ. Does state pre-K improve children’s achievement? Evidence Speaks Reports. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2018;2(59):1-10.

18 Hill 2015b - Hill CJ, Gormley WT, Adelstein S. Do the short-term effects of a high-quality preschool program persist? Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2015;32:60-79.

19 Camilli 2010 - Camilli G, Vargas S, Ryan S, Barnett WS. Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record. 2010;112(3):579-620.

20 Manning 2010 - Manning M, Homel R, Smith C. A meta-analysis of the effects of early developmental prevention programs in at-risk populations on non-health outcomes in adolescence. Children and Youth Services Review. 2010;32(4):506-519.

21 Burger 2010 - Burger K. How does early childhood care and education affect cognitive development? An international review of the effects of early interventions for children from different social backgrounds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2010;25(2):140-165.

22 McKenzie 2021 - McKenzie SC, Jordan E, Wood C. Early access: Elementary school outcomes for Arkansas Better Chance public pre-kindergarten participants. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, Arkansas Education Reports; 2021.

23 Wong 2008 - Wong VC, Cook TD, Barnett WS, Jung K. An effectiveness-based evaluation of five state pre-kindergarten programs. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2008;27(1):122-54.

24 Bailey 2021 - Bailey MJ, Sun S, Timpe B. Prep school for poor kids: The long-run impacts of Head Start on human capital and economic self-sufficiency. American Economic Review. 2021;111(12):3963-4001.

25 Brookings-Cascio 2013 - Cascio E, Whitmore Schanzenback D. The impacts of expanding access to high-quality preschool education. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2013;1:127-178.

26 Carr 2021 - Carr RC, Peisner-Feinberg ES, Kaplan R, Mokrova IL. Effects of North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program at the end of kindergarten: Contributions of school-wide quality. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 2021;76:101317.

27 Carr 2019 - Carr RC, Mokrova IL, Vernon-Feagans L, Burchinal MR. Cumulative classroom quality during pre-kindergarten and kindergarten and children’s language, literacy, and mathematics skills. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2019;47:218-228.

28 Durkin 2022 - Durkin K, Lipsey MW, Farran DC, Wiesen SE. Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade. Developmental Psychology. 2022.

29 Bassok 2016 - Bassok D, Miller LC, Galdo E. The effects of universal state pre-kindergarten on the child care sector: The case of Florida’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program. Economics of Education Review. 2016;53:87-98.

30 Hong 2019a - Hong K, Dragan K, Glied S. Seeing and hearing: The impacts of New York City’s universal pre-kindergarten program on the health of low-income children. Journal of Health Economics. 2019;64:93-107.

31 Masuda 2021 - Masuda R, Lanier P, Peisner-Feinberg E, Hashimoto H. A quasi-experimental study of the effects of pre-kindergarten education on pediatric asthma. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18(19)10461.

32 NBER-Cascio 2017 - Cascio E. Does universal preschool hit the target? Program access and preschool impacts. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2017.

33 Miller 2017a - Miller P, Votruba-Drzal E, McQuiggan M, et al. Pre-K classroom-economic composition and children’s early academic development. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2017;109(2):149-165.

34 Upjohn-Bartik 2018 - Bartik TJ, Hershbein B. Pre-k in the public schools: Evidence from within U.S. States. W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. 2018: Working Paper 18-285.

35 Bassok 2016a - Bassok D, Galdo E. Inequality in preschool quality? Community-level disparities in access to high-quality learning environments. Early Education and Development. 2016;27(1):128-144.

36 Valentino 2018 - Valentino R. Will public pre-K really close achievement gaps? Gaps in prekindergarten quality between students and across states. American Educational Research Journal. 2018;55(1):79-116.

37 Latham 2020 - Latham S, Corcoran SP, Sattin-Bajaj C, Jennings JL. Racial disparities in pre-k quality: Evidence from New York City’s universal pre-k program. Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. 2020: Working Paper 20-248.

38 FRB-Ilin 2021 - Ilin E, Shampine S, Terry E. Does access to free pre-kindergarten increase maternal labor supply? Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. 2021: Working Paper No. 21-11.

39 Li 2020a - Li H. The effect of universal pre-kindergarten policy on female labor force participation—A synthetic control approach. Southern Economic Journal. 2020;87(2):440-482.

40 Chien 2010 - Chien NC, Howes C, Burchinal M, et al. Children’s classroom engagement and school readiness gains in prekindergarten. Child Development. 2010;81(5):1534-49.

41 Hamre 2013 - Hamre BK, Pianta RC, Downer JT, et al. Teaching through interactions: Testing a developmental framework of teacher effectiveness in over 4,000 classrooms. Elementary School Journal. 2013;113(4):461-87.

42 Anderson 2017a - Anderson S, Phillips D. Is pre-K classroom quality associated with kindergarten and middle-school academic skills? Developmental Psychology. 2017;53(6):1063-1078.

43 RAND-Karoly 2021 - Karoly LA, Cannon JS, Gomez CJ, Whitaker A. High-quality publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs: How much do they cost?. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation; 2021.

44 NIEER-Friedman-Krauss 2021 - Friedman-Krauss AH, Barnett WS, Garver KA, et al. The state of preschool 2020: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER); 2021.

45 Brookings-Whitehurst 2015 - Whitehurst GJ, Klein E. Do we already have universal preschool? Evidence Speaks Reports. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2015;1(1):1-8.

46 NIEER-Friedman-Krauss 2019 - Friedman-Krauss AH, Barnett WS, Garver KA, et al. The state of preschool 2018: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). 2019.

47 Cohen-Vogel 2020 - Cohen-Vogel L, Sadler J, Little MH, Merrill B, Curran FC. The adoption of public pre-kindergarten among the American states: An event history analysis. Educational Policy. 2020.