Early Childhood Education: Few States Measuring Up

Last Updated: January 28, 2015

This article appeared in the January 2015 Rural Policy Matters.

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There’s growing agreement across the political and research spectrums that quality early childhood education — birth through early elementary school — has positive long-term impact on learning and life outcomes. Education Week reports on what states are doing in terms of early learning in its annual report Quality Counts, released earlier this month.

The early childhood portion of the report compiles data from several sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, to create an analysis of participation in formal early childhood programs.

Nationally, only 28% of the nation’s three and four-year-olds are enrolled in some kind of preschool program. Further, enrollment patterns differ sharply by family income and parental education level.

Among children living in households earning $100,000 or more, 64% are enrolled in preschool, compared to 40% of children in households earning less than $40,000. And only four in ten children living in very low-income households, those earning less than $20,000 a year, were enrolled in preschool.

Similar patterns hold in relation to family education levels. Children in families with higher education levels were more likely to be enrolled in preschool than children in families with lower education levels.

Variation by state

Early childhood education programs, even more than regular education, vary dramatically by state. Whether a child has access to full-day kindergarten or programs for three and four year olds depends not only on whether families can afford to pay for programs, but how and where the state provides programs. For example, more than 94% of children attend full-day kindergarten in Hawaii compared to only 24.6% in Utah.

Quality Counts includes an interesting index of state preschool and kindergarten enrollment data. The chart does not include information about whether programs are private or public or require families to pay (other than Head Start enrollment data). However, it does indicate, on a state-by-state basis, whether overall enrollment has increased or decreased between 2008 and 2013.

During the period covered, 19 states and the District of Columbia saw increases in the percentages of three and four year olds enrolled in some kind of preschool program. The largest increases were in Nebraska, where enrollment rose 6.9%. In 31 states, overall preschool enrollment for three and four year olds fell.

Importantly, the index tracks changes in the enrollment gap between non-poor and poor children from 2008–2012. In 22 states and the District of Columbia that gap narrowed, most significantly in Hawaii where the gap closed by 24.8%. Wyoming and Rhode Island followed by narrowing their gaps by 11.5% and 9.2% respectively.

However, the preschool enrollment gap widened in 25 states, most notably in Vermont, which saw its gap grow by 21.8%. Delaware (where the gap widened by 5.5%), Kentucky (5.4%), Pennsylvania (5.3%), and North Carolina (5.1%) followed with the largest increase in enrollment gaps, generally as legislatures cut funding for state pre-K programs.

The growth in the gap in North Carolina is especially important because the state has been under court order to expand pre-K programs for at-risk children. The order, part of the state’s long-running school funding lawsuit (filed by rural districts), was issued in 2000. It was upheld in 2012 when plaintiffs appealed after the state cut funding for the program, imposed enrollment caps, and created co-payment requirements for families. (See previous RPM coverage of the lawsuit and the pre-K ruling here.)

Many rural communities struggle to provide preschool

While Quality Counts does not provide preschool enrollment information by locale, rural communities have long faced particular challenges in providing early childhood programs and high-quality licensed day care centers. These challenges affect both providers and families. For example, in many communities there are no buildings that meet state facilities requirements; few organizations have capacity to sustain programs; training for workers is limited or non-existent; and budgets for materials and supplies are restrictive. Families often live far from providers, may lack transportation to get their children to centers, and need financial support to meet enrollment fees.

These circumstances make school-based programs and community engagement to support early learning especially important in rural places.

For more information about an innovative early literacy program, be sure to read “Increasing Early Literacy in Rural Communities” in this issue of RPM.

Read More:

See Quality Counts here:

Several interesting charts and maps:

Overview of state early childhood indicators:

State-by-State early childhood index:

Morning Edition report on day care costs and history of high-quality, low-cost care in the U.S.


Read more from the January 2015 Rural Policy Matters.