A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America

All parents hope their child will start school ready for success. Unfortunately, not every parent can find the high-quality early learning opportunity that sets their child up for success.

Earlier today the U.S. Department of Education released a new report outlining the unmet need for high-quality early learning programs in America. Roughly 6 in 10 four-year-olds are not enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs, and even fewer are enrolled in the highest quality programs.

Unmet Need

While both states and the federal government invest in early learning, these efforts have fallen short of what is needed to ensure that all children can access a high-quality early education that will prepare them for success.

Significant new investments in high-quality early education are necessary to help states, local communities, and parents close the readiness gap that exists between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.


For Latino children, the unmet need is especially great. While Latinos are the fastest growing and largest minority group in the United States, making up a quarter of 3- and 4-year-olds, Latinos demonstrate the lowest preschool participation rates of any major ethnicity or race.

And while most children who have access to preschool attend moderate-quality programs, African- American children and children from low-income families are the most likely to attend low- quality preschool programs and are the least likely to attend high-quality preschool programs.

Building on Progress

To address the unmet need for high-quality preschool, states and the federal government have invested in initiatives to expand access. These investments provide a strong base upon which we can build voluntary, universal access to high-quality early education that will prepare our nation’s students for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Over the past decade, governors from both political parties have pushed for the creation
and expansion of publicly funded preschool programs. Since 2003, states have increased
their investment in preschool by more than 200 percent.

The federal government has also worked to improve the quality and expand early learning through the Head Start program. Twenty states have also received support through the Early Learning Challenge program, which helped states improve early childhood workforce preparation and training, and strengthened health services and family engagement.

Congress took an important step in 2014 to address inequities in access to high-quality preschool by supporting the Preschool Development Grants program, a 4-year, federal-state partnership to expand the number of children enrolled in high-quality preschool programs in high-need communities. Thirty-five states and Puerto Rico applied, but due — in part — to limited funding, only 18 grants were awarded.


Preschool Development Grants will not cover every child in the funded states; however, these states will be another step closer to the goal of expanding access to high-quality early learning across the country. Over the 4-year grant period, and with continued funding from Congress, these states are expecting to enroll an additional 177,000 children in high-quality preschool programs, which will help put children on a path to success in school and in life.

Support for Early Learning

Over the last several years, an impressive coalition of education, business, law enforcement, military, child advocacy groups, and faith-based leaders have joined together to support the expansion of high-quality preschool programs. These groups recognize that investing in high-quality preschool means that more students will graduate from high school, go to college or join the armed or public services, and become contributing, productive members of our society with fewer youth and adults entering the justice system.

The evidence supporting early learning is clear. Research shows that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs have better health, social-emotional, and cognitive outcomes than those who do not participate.

Expanding early learning — including high-quality preschool — provides society with a return on investment of $8.60 for every $1 spent. About half of the return on investment originates from increased earnings for children when they grow up.

Moving Forward

This year, as Congress seeks to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), our nation is at critical moment. Congress can honor this important legacy and moral imperative – as our nation observes ESEA’s 50th anniversary – by reauthorizing a strong education law. This new law must reflect real equity of opportunity, starting with our youngest children.

By making a significant investment in preschool a key component of ESEA, we can help America live up to its highest ideals, as a place with real equity of opportunity. Congress has a chance to honor and extend the civil rights legacy of our education law by providing all children — no matter where they live or how much money their parents earn — an equal opportunity to begin school ready to succeed.


  1. Research does not support the premise that 4 year old preschool programs are necessary for academic success in elementary school. In fact, research tells us that by the time children are 3, their vocabulary growth rate is established and won’t change regardless of 4 year old education programs. Vocabulary growth is correlated with reading success.

  2. More than 11 million young children in the U.S. that come from homes where language other than English is spoken…. and the Department of Education doesn’t even mention them in this report? Streams of research studies keep repeating the finding that high quality preschool is not enough – we need more focused attention to what works for this significant and growing portion of our population. If the federal government doesn’t even acknowledge them in this report, how can we expect our investment to yield successful outcomes for all?

  3. Well I just tried to enroll my Childs in to preschool and they said that there would be no more preschool at Carson street elementary in California so how is my child suppose to get the tools to succeed if they are canceling the programs?

  4. There are many private day cares that offer high quality pre-k programs which these grants are putting out of business because the money always goes to elementary schools with pre-k programs or Head Start programs. Why don’t we try and help child care small business owners (who pay taxes by the way whereas these non-profits do not pay taxes) by increasing enrollment in their pre-k classrooms.

  5. Hi,

    I have a high quality Family Childcare/Preschool at home. We’ve been full (12 children/day) all year long for the past 10+ years. Very rarely I have space available. My wait list is long. Why? Because there are not many programs teaching and getting children ready for Kindergarten.
    I’m not accredited because the NAEYC does not approve us to teach basics for children to be ready for Kindergarten. There is a non stressful but fun way to teach them without being too academic.

  6. The idea that early public education will solve societies woes is not supported by empirical evidence. As the government expands preschool education, local schools close the doors on high school life skills classes.
    Through expansion of high school Family and Consumet Science classes, students learn the importance of planned parenthood, and the needs of infants and toddlers.
    Waiting to teach four year olds, is too little too late. Ninety percent of everything a child learns occurs in the first three years of life, with infancy the most important time for brain development.

  7. Teachers must be encouraged to enhanced the children’s inborn abilities to be creativity and not teach towards testing. When a child is given the ability to explore and develop in a high quality environment, he or she will excel beyond test scores.

  8. Equal, think again. It is the children who’s parent’s earn just off the affordable level those children suffer. Not the low encome children. Money is available for them, not the parent’s who earn just over the low encome levels. They are the one who pay their bills and not the one who’s hand is ever open to recieve help and sit on their growing butts. Help the people who give back to the community. Pre school should be free to ALL children.

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