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.
Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)
Increased academic achievement
Increased school readiness
Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes
Improved social emotional skills
Reduced child care costs
Increased labor force participation
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, 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.
Impact on Disparities
As of 2020, 44 states and Washington, DC 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 6 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.
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, DC: Brookings Institution; 2018.
Child Trends-ECDC - The Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC). Child Trends. Bethesda, MD.
* 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.
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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).
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