Publicly-funded pre-kindergarten programs

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
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

Publicly-funded pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs are large-scale efforts to provide school-based early learning 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 municipalities and school districts1.  

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased academic achievement

  • Increased school readiness

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved social emotional skills

  • Increased earnings

  • Reduced child care costs

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that publicly-funded pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs improve school readiness and increase academic achievement1, 2, 3, 4, 5, especially among children from disadvantaged backgrounds1, 6, 7, 8, 9 and English language learners1, 4, 10. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm long term effects1, 11, 12.

In general, children who attend preschool demonstrate gains in cognitive and social skills13, 14, 15, 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 skills16. Among children from lower income backgrounds, state pre-K enrollment is associated with increased time reading at home, likelihood that mothers work, and improved test performance, often lasting through eighth grade17. 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 time2

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-olds18. Attending high-quality universal pre-K increases the likelihood a child will be diagnosed with asthma, hearing, or vision problems and receive treatment19.

Several universal pre-K programs demonstrate stronger effects for Hispanics, blacks, and children from very poor families than for whites and children from more advantaged families7, 20. Georgia’s universal pre-K program benefits disadvantaged children in rural areas the most, possibly because they cannot access alternative pre-K programs6. Effects for low income children in such programs diminish with time but can last through fourth grade in reading and eighth grade in math17. Effects may be more likely to persist for students enrolled in more mature pre-K programs12 or for students who continue to receive interventions through grade school1. Economically integrated pre-K programs may improve academic achievement more for children from low income families than programs that only serve children from disadvantaged backgrounds20, 21.

The quality of pre-K classroom experience varies significantly by community characteristics22. In states with high levels of residential segregation, black and Hispanic children from low income backgrounds often experience worse publicly-funded pre-K environments than white children in more affluent areas23.

Some researchers recommend states focus resources on minority and disadvantaged children, who will benefit the most from pre-K access6. Others contend that universal pre-K should be promoted as it garners more public support than programs for vulnerable populations7. Offering preschool universally can increase enrollment for children of all income levels. Among high income families, universal programs can reduce child care costs as families enroll their children in public preschool17. 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 preschool20.

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 exploration24. Explicit academic instruction, low staff-to-student ratios13, good classroom management, and emotional support can improve children’s cognitive and social outcomes25. 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 systems26. Challenges for such programs include staff turnover, student enrollment levels, staff time to complete accountability requirements for public funding, and government regulation changes8.

In 2017-18, state pre-K programs spent an average of $5,175 per student in addition to federal and local funding27. 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 programs28.

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

As of 2017-18, 44 states and Washington DC have publicly-funded pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs that serve over 1.3 million 4-year-olds, about one-third of all 4-year-olds in the country. Ten states served nearly 50% or more of 4-year-olds in their states, and Florida, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Washington DC enrolled more than 70% of their 4-year-olds27.

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 3 states, Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island, meet all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks for preschool quality. Twelve states met fewer than half of the benchmarks. 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 teachers27.

Implementation Resources

Pre-K Now - Pre-K Now. Resource center.

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, DC: Brookings Institution; 2018.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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, DC: Brookings Institution; 2017.

2 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.

3 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.

4 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.

5 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.

6 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).

7 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.

8 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.

9 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.

10 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.

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

12 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.

13 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.

14 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):506-19.

15 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):140-65.

16 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.

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

18 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.

19 NBER-Hong 2017 - Hong K, Dragan K, Glied S. Seeing and hearing: the impacts of New York City’s universal prekindergarten program on the health of low-income children. Journal of Health Economics. 2017;64:93-107.

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

21 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.

22 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.

23 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.

24 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.

25 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.

26 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.

27 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.

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

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