Setting the Stage for Universal Preschool

September 21, 2021

The pandemic has resulted in state and federal policymakers taking notice of the essential role child care plays. Child care has been prioritized as an issue desperately needing support and has been included in each of the three relief packages to date. But relief funds have only provided temporary solutions for the child care system and are just the beginning of what is needed to recover and rebuild after decades of underfunding. Federal policymakers are listening and are in the midst of considering additional funds to sustain child care long-term.

The American Families Plan (AFP), the second part of the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Agenda, and the House of Representatives’ Build Back Better Act, propose significant, long-term investments in early learning. Among these investments is funding for a free, high-quality, mixed-delivery universal preschool program for all 3- and 4-year old children nationwide.

To level set, preschool programs (sometimes called prekindergarten) support children typically between ages 3 and 5 and usually have a focus on school readiness. While some preschool programs may operate on a full-day, year-round schedule, some may follow a more traditional school-day or year schedule. These programs vary from being funded by states in dedicated funding streams, through competitive state grant awards, or by cities or school districts. Some states have required preschool programs to participate in their Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) and meet certain benchmarks. Some state programs are also required to meet child care licensing standards.

Mixed delivery describes the availability of preschool programs across different settings, such as schools, nonprofit organizations, child care centers, family child care homes, faith-based organizations and Head Start programs. Mixed delivery programs give families the ability to choose the setting that best meets their unique and diverse needs.

This blog provides an overview of the current preschool landscape nationwide and policy recommendations for states and communities as they build upon their existing preschool systems with additional federal and state funds.

Current Landscape of Preschool Systems Nationwide

The National Institution for Early Education Research (NIEER) releases a yearly update on preschool in each state. The report uses certain criteria to define state-funded preschool programs, which include programs that are funded and controlled by the state, place early education as the primary focus and provide services at least two days a week to children who are of preschool age (usually 3- and 4-year olds).

As of the 2019-2020 school year, NIEER found that state-funded preschool systems exist in all states but six: Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming. This does not mean that preschool programs don’t exist in these six states, but there is no dedicated state-funding stream and programs may be supported by federal or local funds or exist in a limited capacity. Only four states— Florida, Oklahoma, Vermont and Wisconsin— and the District of Columbia serve at least 70% of their 4-year olds. Nationally, 3-year old children make up very little of the state-funded preschool population at just 6.3%.

NIEER’s most recent report shows that total state funding continues to grow for preschool programs, exceeding $9 billion for the first time across the District of Columbia and 44 states that offered state-funded preschool during the 2019-2020 school year. Despite the recent increase in state funding, there is still a huge unmet need to reach preschool-aged children with early learning.

Interest at the Federal Level in Universal Preschool

To allow more families to access the many benefits of early learning, the Administration’s AFP specifically calls on a nationwide partnership among states to offer a “free, high-quality, accessible, and inclusive preschool to all 3- and 4-year olds.” The AFP proposal first prioritizes high-need areas, with the goal of eventually offering free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds— it estimates to benefit 5 million children nationwide when fully implemented.

The AFP underscores a strong commitment to quality by using funds to invest in low student-to-teacher ratios, developmentally appropriate curriculum and inclusive classroom environments for all students. Under the AFP, providers will receive job-embedded coaching, professional development opportunities and wages that reflect the importance of the work provided. All employees will earn at least $15 per hour, and those with comparable qualifications and experience will receive compensation equivalent to that of elementary school teachers.

Congress is currently developing legislation that would invest as much as $450 billion in the child care and preschool proposals outlined in the AFP. The bill under consideration would authorize states to establish or expand preschool services for 3- and 4-year olds. The state must provide services free of charge and through a mixed-delivery system that includes licensed child care settings (including family child care), Head Start agencies and local public schools. States would have a high degree of discretion in how they subgrant or contract to local entities for services delivery but must prioritize reaching high-need communities first. States must also equitably allocate preschool seats among providers in the mixed delivery system, which would ensure the participation of licensed child care and Head Start.

With respect to the workforce, the legislation would require states to establish salaries for preschool teachers that are equivalent to elementary school teachers with similar credentials and experience. The amount of funding available is reflected in an open-ended entitlement, meaning the Treasury Department must provide funds necessary to cover the federal share of the cost of a universal, high-quality, free, inclusive and mixed-delivery preschool system.

Negotiations on the bill text and funding levels are still ongoing, meaning continued advocacy through the fall will be paramount to ensure that the proposal for universal preschool via mixed delivery, as included in the AFP, remains intact.

Building Upon the Successes (and Challenges) of Existing Programs

Once funding for free, high-quality, accessible and inclusive preschool is passed by Congress, it will be up to states and local communities to design a plan to use the funds.

Existing state and local preschool programs provide a foundation for us to build upon, as well as a look into what has worked (and what hasn’t). It will be vital to the success of the new federally funded program that we study successes and challenges that have arisen as states and local communities have established their own preschool systems.

To reach the legislation’s potential to offer a “free, high-quality, accessible and inclusive preschool to all 3- and 4-year olds,” we believe that plans for universal preschool must include:

  • An inclusive implementation process that reflects all community voices, in particular those of parents and providers;
  • Assurances of true family choice through a system of mixed delivery that includes licensed child care settings and Head Start programs;
  • Prioritization of investment in the workforce, including increases in compensation for early educators;
  • A plan to stabilize and support high-quality slots for infants and toddlers; and
  • A commitment to attainable quality improvement across all programs.

Inclusive Implementation Process that Reflects all Community Voices

First and foremost, a high-quality universal preschool program must reflect the diverse needs of the families, children and child care providers within each community. Programs work best when they are designed with community-tailored solutions that align with the needs and preferences of families. To determine what works best for communities, states and localities must engage in efforts that empower and incorporate the voices of providers, families and community-based organizations, especially those that have historically been left out of systems design and implementation.

A localized example of universal preschool initiatives driven by community-based, grassroots efforts happened in both Multnomah County, Oregon, and St. Louis, Missouri during the 2020 election cycle. Both locations passed preschool initiatives that placed families at the center of decision making. Their programs were designed to be responsive to the diverse needs of local families and were the result of multi-year efforts to bring several sectors and stakeholders together.

A state-based example can be found in West Virginia, which requires its counties to form collaborative early childhood teams to bring together a range of early learning stakeholders to make decisions about their preschool program. These teams include representatives from the local school district, Head Start, the county’s preschool special needs program, child care resource and referral (CCR&R) agency or the local department of health and human services, and families. Additionally, every licensed child care program in the county must be invited to participate in the collaborative team.

Assurances of True Family Choice through Mixed Delivery

All families deserve access to high-quality early learning opportunities and, simply put, “one-size fits all” does not apply to early learning. Early learning programs, including preschool programs, must allow families the ability to choose the high-quality setting that best suits their needs, hours of care and preference. To make this a reality, state plans must engage in a process to ensure that preschool seats will be distributed equitably among child care programs (including family child care), school districts and Head Start programs. Depending on the needs of the state and communities, one provider type may receive greater allocations of preschool slots over others. For example, in rural communities, the only preschool programs that may exist are Head Start programs. One study released in 2018 found that, within a 10-state sample, one out of every three rural child care centers was a Head Start program. While expanding Head Start in local communities should be considered across the country, rural communities may wish to look first to expand preschool offerings by providing greater support and investment to their Head Start agencies.

Georgia has a long-standing preschool program that has been available in school-based, center-based and home-based programs to meet individual community needs since its establishment. As of the 2018-2019 school year, total enrollment in child-care-based programs and in schools were nearly evenly split. West Virginia counties must maximize existing programs before opening new classrooms and must operate at least half of its preschool programs in community-based settings, such as child care and Head Start programs.

Prioritization Investments in the Workforce

Another core pillar of successful preschool implementation is to raise wages and provide fair benefits to preschool providers in all setting types, including family child care. The average wage in 2020 for those employed in child care centers was $12.24 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 15% of child care workers live below the artificially low “official” poverty line, more than double the rate of other industries, and 85% do not have health insurance.

Placing early educators on equal footing with their peers in K-12 settings in terms of compensation, benefits and professional learning opportunities is critical. As states seek to establish and expand preschool, they must ensure that salaries and salary schedules for preschool educators in all setting types are equivalent to those for elementary school educators with similar credentials and experience. A 2018 NIEER analysis found that there is a current lack of salary parity policies between the two and that just five states required parity between elementary and preschool teachers regardless of setting. When New York City launched its expansive preschool program in 2014, the city did not address salary disparities between early childhood lead teachers and their peers within public schools, which caused an increase in turnover from community-based settings to the public schools. Five years later, the city came to an agreement and announced a pathway to parity for certified early childhood educators with the starting pay of public school teachers by October 2021. Oklahoma, whose program has been in existence since 1980, ensures its preschool educators equal pay with other K-12 teachers, along with the same individualized professional development opportunities.

Protection of High-quality Slots for Infants and Toddlers

The costs associated with providing care for infants and toddlers incurs great expense due to increased labor costs necessitated by the low adult-to-child ratios— and providers are loath to pass those expenses on to families. Providers offset the high cost of infant and toddler care by providing care for preschool-aged children, who can be cared for in larger groups that necessitate fewer adult caregivers and lower labor costs. The fees providers earn from caring for preschoolers help balance the higher cost of caring for babies and toddlers. Thus, when preschool services can no longer be offered by certain providers, it disrupts the economics that keep these providers afloat.

One ramification of previous well-intended initiatives to establish universal preschool is that it has financially squeezed child care providers from being able to offer infant and toddler care.

If states offer universal preschool without a plan to invest in programs that currently serve preschool-aged children, the supply of infant and toddler care can decrease significantly and become even more unaffordable for families. As states ramp up their preschool programs, it is crucial that the supply of infant and toddler care is not harmed in the process.

To prevent this from happening, Multnomah County included an infant and toddler slot preservation fund, which will provide investments up to $25 million per year once the program is fully phased-in. Illinois state law requires a set-aside from its Early Childhood Block Grant, which supports that state’s preschool programs, to be reserved for programs that support infants and toddlers.

Commitment to Attainable Quality Improvement Across all Programs

All children should receive a high-quality early learning experience, no matter what preschool setting their family chooses. Quality early childhood education should nurture the whole child, including their social, emotional, physical and cognitive development in a setting that upholds the highest health and safety standards. Studies show that access to high-quality care can help lead to better educational outcomes, such as closing the kindergarten achievement gap.

In existing preschool programs, standards for learning, health and safety, and professional development standards may vary depending on what setting the program is located in. States and communities must work toward establishing clear, consistent high-quality standards for all program settings. Establishing or strengthening a state’s QRIS and/or accreditation programs may be able to help preschool programs move along the quality continuum by setting explicit standards for high-quality practice. Notably, literature has not found any demonstrative link between participation in QRIS and positive child outcomes and, further, these systems have tended to exclude certain providers, particularly family child care providers. However, many states have begun to reevaluate their QRIS and work alongside early educators to strengthen these systems by ensuring inclusivity and an incentive structure that brings diverse provider settings into a system of continuous quality improvement – including investments to help providers attain certain measures of quality. States should consider how they can create an equitable QRIS and may consider the recommendations that have been offered by several national organizations.

Training, technical support and the financial resources needed to meet new high-quality standards should be tailored to each type of program setting. State plans must be mindful of family child care programs, which are a critical part of the early childhood learning system, and their ability to meet new program standards compared to larger center- or school-based programs, especially around licensing and accreditation.

Quality early learning is an important part of North Carolina’s preschool program. Participating programs in all setting types are required to meet several benchmarks for measuring quality, like low staff-to-child ratios, education and licensure requirements, developmental screens and referral, and using an evidence-based curriculum. Oklahoma provides continuous professional development and support to help educators successfully implement its high-quality standards to strengthen its preschool program. In Oklahoma, all preschool educators are required to have individualized professional development plans and to receive coaching.

Involving CCR&Rs in Preschool Implementation

CCR&Rs work tirelessly to connect providers and families to high-quality child care and early learning opportunities in their communities. They are a trusted resource for providers of all settings and families of all backgrounds. In many states, CCR&Rs have existing agreements with licensed providers to offer training and other services and have helped programs reach quality standards and accreditation to participate in preschool systems. CCR&Rs track providers’ licensing status, the languages they speak, the age groups they serve, the schedules they offer and the number of spaces available in centers or family child care. They perform outreach to families to connect them with the early learning options that best suit their needs. States have relied heavily on CCR&Rs as trusted intermediaries over the course of the past year and a half, as states have grappled with how best to connect providers and families to pandemic-related relief.

Given the important role they already play, states should leverage these community-based organizations to facilitate the expansion of universal preschool at all stages. In fact, the legislation under consideration in Congress explicitly names CCR&Rs as a potential source for the management and distribution of quality expenditures for child care. First, they should be included in the planning and development stages. They can then assist with the administration of preschool grants and contracts to existing and prospective child care providers in a system of mixed delivery. This would not only ensure a system of mixed delivery, but it would also honor and invest in the system that already exists in so many communities across the country. CCR&Rs can also help communities and states collect relevant data and continue to connect families with the right preschool options, as they do now. As conversations continue about how to implement a free, high-quality, accessible and inclusive preschool to all 3- and 4-year old children nationwide, CCR&Rs need to be at the heart of these discussions and funded appropriately to do so.

Child Care Aware® of America has compiled a list of additional resources that examine strengthening and expanding preschool systems:

Topics: Policy & Advocacy

Diane Girouard

Written by Diane Girouard

Diane is currently the State Policy Analyst at Child Care Aware. Prior to this role, Diane was a policy analyst focused on child nutrition with the Food Research & Action Center. Diane also worked as a policy analyst for several years under both houses of the New York State Legislature on the education and higher education committees.