Will the Real UPK Please Stand Up?

October 20, 2011

The pre-K debates often focus around choice – whether parents will be able to send their children to half-day or full-day programs, to private centers or public schools, and perhaps most importantly, to any high-quality preschool program at all. Universal pre-K can make high-quality programs a choice for every family, one that we think few would refuse. Therefore, one might assume universal programs would always have higher enrollments than targeted programs. Interestingly enough that does not turn out to be the case for several reasons.

In a 2009 policy brief, NIEER identified three states as having universal programs – Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma – and three more as on the path to universal access – Illinois, New York and West Virginia.  However, states can vary greatly in progress down that path. For instance, Illinois’s Preschool for All, aims for universal access but has only enrolled 31 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. Compare this with Arkansas’s program that has more limited eligibility requirements but enrolls a larger percentage of those eligible; at 41 percent of 4-year-olds, it far surpasses Illinois’s Preschool for All.

According to The State of Preschool 2010, 20 state programs report that enrollment is open to “all children in districts offering the program” or report a timeline to achieve that goal. (See Table 1 for a list of these programs.) However, unless the program is offered in all districts in a state, a program may then be “universal” only in certain communities. For instance, New Jersey’s Abbott districts enroll 18 and 20 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds statewide, but these 35 districts contain only about a quarter of the state’s children.

Table 1. State pre-K initiatives that could be considered universal or on the path to universal enrollment

Alabama Iowa SVPP Nevada Pennsylvania K4
Connecticut Louisiana LA4 New Jersey Abbott Rhode Island
Florida Maine New Jersey ECPA Vermont Act 62
Georgia Massachusetts New York West Virginia
Illinois Missouri Oklahoma Wisconsin 4K

Many of the top 10 states by percent of 4-year-olds enrolled (see Table 2) don’t fall into the universal category.

Table 2. Top 10 states by access for 4-year-olds rank

State Percent of 4-year-olds enrolled
Oklahoma 70.7%
Florida 68.1%
West Virginia 55.3%
Georgia 54.6%
Vermont 52.1%
Wisconsin 51.5%
Texas 46.8%
New York 45.3%
Arkansas 41.1%
Iowa 38.1%

At present only Oklahoma can really be considered to offer universal high-quality pre-K. Florida might be said to be universal, but not high-quality (or even moderately good). Based on recent progress and future plans, West Virginia and Vermont have the best chance of joining Oklahoma in the near future.  Politics could tip other leading states toward universal or stop them in their tracks. How states respond when the recession eases and it becomes easier to expand funding for pre-K will be quite telling, and preschool supporters should be prepared to push when that happens.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


Eating Right, Learning Right

October 10, 2011

The important link between children’s health and their education is being highlighted this week with the celebration of National School Lunch Week. This year’s theme is “School Lunch – Let’s Grow Healthy,” as part of a three-month long campaign by the School Nutrition Association to highlight the importance of school lunch programs. Common sense tells us that children with empty stomachs can’t concentrate on classroom learning or homework. With this in mind, schools and pre-K programs often offer snacks and meals throughout the day to make sure children are fully prepared to learn and excel. The federal Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), administered through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides guidelines for serving nutritious meals and snacks in child care centers and afterschool programs. In addition, providing nutritious meals to children is a key component of the federal Head Start program’s services to low-income children and families.

Each year, NIEER gives state pre-K initiatives a rating based on meeting 10 quality standards benchmarks, which address a variety of quality components including services such as meals. As we stated in The State of Preschool 2010, “these items are included because children’s overall well-being and success in school involves not only their cognitive development but also their physical and social/emotional health.” In order to meet our benchmark on meals, state programs must require by policy that all programs, regardless of hours of operation, offer at least one meal each day.

Unfortunately, in the 2009-2010 school year, only 24 of 52 state-funded pre-K programs met the benchmark of at least one meal being required in state policy. (See Table 1 for a list of the programs meeting the benchmark for required meals.) Twenty of these 24 programs specifically mention lunch in their meal requirements.

Table 1. State programs requiring at least one meal in all pre-K classes

Alabama Louisiana LA4 Oregon
Alaska Louisiana NSECD Pennsylvania HSSAP
Arkansas Maryland Rhode Island
Delaware Minnesota South Carolina CDEPP
Georgia New Jersey Abbott Tennessee
Iowa Shared Visions New Mexico Washington
Kentucky North Carolina West Virginia
Louisiana 8(g) Oklahoma Wisconsin Head Start

However, only five programs – Pennsylvania EABG, Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK, Vermont Act 62, Vermont EEI, and Virginia – reported that no meals or snacks are required by state policy. The remaining 23 programs either reported that snacks were required and/or that meals are required for full-day programs but not half-day programs.

For the 2009-2010 school year, we also asked states to report on whether meals and snacks need to meet nutritional guidelines and found that all but 10 programs require this. (See Table 2 for a list of those programs not requiring programs to use nutritional guidelines.) Of those meeting nutritional guidelines, all were using federal nutrition guidelines set by the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Table 2. State programs not requiring the use of nutritional guidelines

Florida Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK
Illinois Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts
Nevada Rhode Island
New Jersey ELLI Vermont Act 62
Pennsylvania EABG Vermont EEI

The federal Head Start program’s nutritional guidelines play a role here as all five state programs that are Head Start supplements met the benchmark for meals. This is particularly noteworthy in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the states’ other pre-K initiatives do not meet the meal requirement benchmark while the Head Start supplements do.

As with any other of the quality standards we report on in the State Preschool Yearbook series, it is important to remember that we are discussing policy here and not necessarily practice. While not every state policy requires that all programs offer at least one meal, some, or perhaps even all, of those programs may exceed the policy and do so. Still, with only 24 state pre-K programs on the record with a commitment to providing their students with at least one meal a day, we have a long way to go before we can truly celebrate school nutrition.

Child nutrition is of increasing concern as childhood obesity rates increase while food insecurity also spreads. President Obama’s proclamation of this week pointed to the need for collaboration throughout communities to bring students healthy food every day at school, a goal toward which we still work. At a time when Sesame Street has created a new Muppet to address the issue of food insecurity—the 17 million children in families who don’t know where their next meal comes from—it is clear that providing nutritious, consistent meals to children in school can go a long way to improving their daily lives.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


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