Universal Pre-K: What does it mean and who provides it?

January 6, 2016

Inquiring minds often want to know which states offer “universal pre-K.” As states vary in what they define as universal pre-K (UPK) and in how far they have progressed toward fully implementing a universal program as intended, the answer is somewhat complicated.

Preschool classroomRegarding definition, the term UPK can mean simply that the sole eligibility criterion is age, in contrast to “targeted” programs in which eligibility is limited by child or family characteristics, most commonly income. This need not mean that the program is available to all applicants, as there may be caps on spending or enrollment that limit the number of children who can be served. The other common definition–and what universal means in most other developed countries–is that every child can (and very nearly all do) enroll, just as children in the US do in first grade.

A further complication is that when states launch UPK, they often cannot simply enroll all children who might want to attend immediately. It takes some time to create capacity, and states vary in how quickly they increase enrollment. Perhaps more importantly, states that express the intent to enroll all children all too often lose the political will to do so before they reach that goal, and fail to increase funding to keep enrollment expanding until it serves all who wish to enroll. An added wrinkle is that states often provide funding that incentivizes school districts to offer UPK (directly or through private providers), but they do not require school districts to do so (though districts must accept all who wish to enroll if they do offer UPK). In such a situation, not every location in the state may make pre-K available.

State examples help clarify the variations in definition and intent to implement. At present, only in Vermont; Washington, DC; and Florida can pre-K be considered fully universal, in the sense that every child can enroll and virtually all do, though in Florida, Head Start offers such a superior service that many families choose that over the state’s pre-K program. Oklahoma offers UPK in all but a few districts. West Virginia has been in the process of expansion, but may have reached ‘universal’ in 2015. Enrollment in these states varies from 99 percent, to as low as 70 percent in West Virginia which is still expanding (Barnett, Carolan, Squires, Clarke Brown, & Horowitz, 2015).

Five states–Georgia, Illinois (Preschool for All), Iowa, New York, and Wisconsin have policies that they and others call UPK for 4-year-olds, but which fall short of allowing all children to be served. Wisconsin is the only state with a specific constitutional provision for 4K, and will fund school districts to serve all children but does not require all districts to participate. Although the policy is quite similar to that in Oklahoma, fewer districts participate and enrollment remains considerably lower at 66 percent. In Georgia, enrollment is limited by the amount of funding available year to year, and enrollment has plateaued at about 60 percent. Iowa similarly serves about 60 percent at age 4, but it is less clear why it does not continue to expand. In New York, limited funding restricted enrollment and continues to do so, though New York City’s push to enroll all children led to implementing long-delayed increases in state funding to allow for expansion. Enrollment in New York is expected to reach 50% percent in 2015. Illinois is the most egregious example of the gap between intent or ambition and implementation. Designed to serve all 3- and 4-year-olds, the program has never enrolled even a third of age-eligible children. Illinois prioritizes low-income families for services, and currently serves just 27 percent at age four and 19 percent at age three (Barnett et al., 2014)

Finally, two states have unique policies that could be considered UPK of a sort. In California, Transitional K (TK) serves children who turn five between September 2 and December 2 of the school year. As these children then attend kindergarten the following year, TK is effectively pre-K. TK is available to all children who meet the age cutoff. In New Jersey, a state Supreme Court order mandated universal pre-K in 31 high poverty districts serving about one-quarter of the state’s children. Within these districts the only eligibility criteria are residency and age–enrollment varies by district but ranges from 80 percent to 100 percent.

Considerations regarding access, enrollment, and quality

When evaluating policies, it is also important to understand that UPK programs vary in quality as well as actual enrollment. Schedules, standards, funding, and teaching practices vary widely across the “universal” programs described above. Some require as little as 10 hours per week. Others offer a full school day with before- and after-school care, potentially reaching 10 hours per day. Some leave virtually all policy choices and guidance up to the local school district or program. Florida requires little more than a high school diploma of teachers in school-year programs. Others, like New Jersey, set high standards that every classroom must meet, and provide extensive support and guidance. State funding ranges from $2,200 per child to $15,000 per child. Observations of teaching practices in statewide evaluations indicate that some programs are overwhelming good to excellent, while others are mostly poor to mediocre. States differ in their choices regarding how much to invest in quality versus quantity, though it is clear that there need not be a trade-off if states can muster sufficient political will (Minervino, 2014). Indeed, some have argued that programs that do not reach most of the population may have difficulty obtaining support for adequate quality (Barnett, 2011).

–Steve Barnett and Rebecca Gomez, NIEER

 Barnett, W. S. (2011). Four reasons the United States should offer every child a preschool education.  In E. Zigler, W. Gilliam, & W. S. Barnett (Eds.), The pre-k debates: Current controversies and issues (pp. 34-39). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.


Spring peepers and the war on Pre-K for All

February 27, 2015

In the past week I have seen many more attacks directed against Pre-K for All than I have in some time. This signals the start of the state budget season as surely as drumming woodpeckers and noisy peepers signal the arrival of spring. What I find surprising is how many preschool policy peepers promote misinformation based on research that is flawed or simply misused. story time 4

Good government requires good information, and that seems to be in short supply this budget season. Generally, the peepers protest that if everyone gets good preschool, achievement gaps will widen and public money will be wasted, because children from middle-income families do not benefit from preschool. I don’t know which is worse, the obvious logical contradiction or that the studies they cite to support these claims either include only children in poverty or find exactly the opposite–that children from middle-income families gain from high-quality pre-K though usually not as much as children in poverty. New York City in particular has suffered a sudden onslaught of misinformation that coincided with the Mayor’s budget presentation in Albany.

The Mayor’s new budget was greeted with accusations from a just-released report that the first year of the Pre-K for All expansion tilted the playing field in favor of children in wealthy neighborhoods. That claim is patently false. Nearly two-thirds of free, full-day Pre-K for All seats are in neighborhoods below the City’s median income. In just one year of Pre-K for All, New York City increased provision of pre-K seats in neighborhoods in the two lowest-income quintiles to 2.5 times the previous level. In other words, the Mayor’s initiative added more new places for children in low-income communities in one year than New York City had managed to add in the entire previous decade. The straight-up facts: Pre-K for all added 20,500 pre-K places in lower-income zip codes; 6,200 pre-K places in neighborhoods around the median; and another 6,800 in higher-income zip codes.

The same report put forward a survey as evidence that new Pre-K for All seats often just replaced existing places in preschools that did not receive Pre-K for All funds, through “wasteful competition.” Competition that increases choice and raises the bar for quality across early care and education in NYC is hardly wasteful. However, the survey provides no basis for any firm conclusions. Of the 264 providers who did not receive Pre-K for All funds contacted for the survey, less than 40 percent responded. The responses that were obtained appear to be “guesstimates,” rather than data from records, and counted programs as losing seats even when they had waiting lists from which to draw “replacements.” Extrapolation from these questionable figures to “lost seats” just doesn’t make sense.

More troubling than these manufactured problems with Pre-K for All is the proposed solution: to restrict publicly funded pre-K based on family income. This would paradoxically entrench disparities in early learning in the City. Whether or not one believes that every child deserves the option to attend a free, high-quality, full-day pre-K, who believes that separate means equal? Separate is not equal, it’s disparate.

Pre-K is a time for children to explore, create, learn, and socialize with other children and adults, as they build a foundation of skills and knowledge needed for school and life. Exposure to peers from different socioeconomic backgrounds is valuable to a child’s development, and to restrict pre-K access based on income undermines the goal of a fair and equitable education system that reflects the diversity of our cities, states, and nation.

Mayor de Blasio has led a historic expansion of pre-K in New York City, and has made it clear that he believes every 4-year-old, in every neighborhood, deserves to attend free, full-day, high-quality, pre-K. I agree. Others may have values that lead them to different conclusions, but everyone should be informed by accurate information. The orchestrated disinformation campaign to sow dissension, curtail funding, and damage the reputation of an effort that has not completed its first year, indicates that policy makers in New York and elsewhere will need to invest in good evaluations, not just to inform continuous improvement, but also policy making more generally. With a rigorous evaluation planned from the start, New York City results could inform policy decisions in other cities and states around the country. This does not mean a rush to judgment regarding impacts on children in year 1. As Don Campbell advised, summative evaluation of ultimate impacts should wait until a program is “proud.” We should evaluate progress along the way, however. New York City seems to have cleared the first hurdle with room to spare, the preschool peepers’ protests notwithstanding.

–Steve Barnett, Director


New York in a Preschool State of Mind

January 21, 2014

This afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, including significant investment in state-funded pre-K. The Governor called for an investment of $1.5 billion over five years, starting with $100 million in its first year up to $500 million in its fifth year. This funding is meant in addition to the $410 million the state already spends on its “Universal” Prekindergarten Program, with the goal of helping the program move towards the “universal” part of its name.

Pre-K has become a hot topic in the Empire State.  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as we have written before, has made universal pre-K in the Big Apple a key focus of his campaign as well as his first month in office. De Blasio has noted that while many New York City children are served in publicly funded preschool programs, demand far outstrips availability, and he has proposed an increased income tax on those earning over $500,000 to raise the estimated $340 million needed to pay for pre-K for all. An increase in New York City income tax would need to be approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo has stated his support of pre-K but also his opposition to increasing taxes, remaining true to his word today by proposing a plan to build pre-K into the state budget without creating a new tax.

It is easy to see these proposals as an either/or proposition, but the best route for New York’s educational and economic prosperity is both. We applaud Governor Cuomo’s focus on high-quality, full-day universal pre-K and a renewed commitment to providing funding for the program. Implicitly, this recognizes that, to date, the program has undercut quality, provided mostly half-days, and fallen far short of universal in reach. NIEER’s estimate of the cost of a high-quality, full-day program in New York state is just under $10,000 per child. In its first year, the $100 million expansion of the UPK program could fully fund 10,195, or 4 percent, of the state’s 4-year-olds. This would barely chip away at the gap of 50,000 children de Blasio has reported as having no or inadequate access to pre-K.  However, that assumes that nothing is done to raise quality or extend to a full-day existing slots, which could more than consume the entire $100 million without serving any new children.

Giving New York City the autonomy to raise its own taxes in order to invest in educating its children would ensure real progress toward raising quality and providing a full day, while increasing access.  It also would protect the spirit of local control that exists in American education and is one of the key strengths of the American approach to public education. Other cities and towns in the state may choose to move ahead more quickly, as well.

Governor Cuomo’s proposal was only announced today, and key details remain to be specified. In the ensuing conversations about how to proceed, New York could learn important lessons from the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey, which has built one of the highest quality preschool programs in the nation (for a discussion of the lessons learned from this program, see Steve Barnett’s video lecture as well as recent coverage in Slate and The American Prospect). For pre-K to truly succeed as a system, the state needs to set feasible timelines and research-based quality standards. Programs also need support in meeting those standards, as seen in New Jersey’s support of early childhood educator training programs to create a qualified, highly effective workforce. Pre-K cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be coordinated with child care and Head Start programs in the state. This is already underway in New York’s mixed delivery model. Finally, New York state must commit to what it would actually cost to fully meet their goal of full-day highly effective early education for all with a hard deadline for achieving that goal. NIEER provides estimates of the per-child cost of a high-quality program in its Yearbook. A joint report from the Center for Children’s Initiatives and The Campaign for Educational Equity focuses on the questions of funding and timing specifically in a New York context. Basing program funds on what can be found in the budget, rather than studying actual costs of providing a quality universal program, is a recipe for underfunding.

It is heartening to see two such high-profile elected leaders competing over who has the “best“ pre-K plan. Particularly as UPK in New York has been underfunded for well over a decade, it is our sincere hope that Cuomo and de Blasio can work together on both state- and city-level initiatives to create a quality, stable program and ensure that all of New York’s children are off to the bright start they deserve. From our perspective, the best option is likely to be implementing both plans–and together they can transform New York into a model for Governors and Mayors throughout the nation who seek to provide the best 21st Century education and brightest future for all young children.

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER & CEELO

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER  & CEELO


Switching Lanes: New Roadmap for New York Universal Prekindergarten

October 24, 2013

While New York provides state-funded pre-K to 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, the state has consistently fallen short of the “universal” aim of its goals. A new effort from the Center for Children’s Initiatives (CCI) and The Campaign for Educational Equity (CEE) aims to change that, with today’s release of Making Prekindergarten Truly Universal in New York: A Statewide Roadmap.

The Roadmap is the result not only of a rigorous research process, but also of several meetings hosted by CCI and CEE with leaders in early childhood and New York-specific education policy, to fully understand the needs of early childhood students. NIEER Director Steve Barnett said, in response to this Roadmap, “The proposed road map to universal pre-K is the single most powerful education reform that New York could undertake.  It would ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed in school from the very beginning.  This is a road map to equity and excellence that will raise test scores while decreasing costly failure, repetition, and special education.” A similar program in New Jersey districts with a high concentration of low-income families has already produced student gains and cost-saving benefits for schools. Choosing to follow this roadmap could put New York on the path to greater long-term economic growth and a better start for thousands of children.

Barnett wrote about New York in March, offering recommendations for how the state should move from its not-so-universal program to a program serving all children in the state: focusing on quality, a realistic timeline, and ensuring stable and adequate funding. The CCI and CEE report addresses these with its key recommendations, proposing an 8-year timeline to provide access for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state:

  • Years 1-3: All 4-year-olds in districts with high concentration of low-income households
  • Adult playing cars with childYears 4-5: All 4-year-olds in all districts
  • Years 6-7: All 3-year-olds in districts with high concentration of low-income households
  • Years 8: All 3-year-olds in all districts

The proposal has a distinct focus on ensuring that program funding is adequate to

support a high-quality program, including health, social, and family engagement services, as well as funds for infrastructure to bring the program to scale. Prekindergarten funding should also be incorporated into the K-12 state education finance system. Initially, the state should pay the full cost of pre-K, with the long-term goal of appropriate state/local cost sharing.

How do CCI and CEE define “quality?” Many of their recommendations align with what NIEER recommends in the research-based 10 Quality Standards Benchmarks in the State of Preschool Yearbook.  Standards for New York include:

  • Provide access to a full-day (six hours and 20 minutes) program, five days per week, 180 days per year. Extended hours should be made available where needed.
  • Maintain current state limits of no more than 17 students with one teacher and one assistant, but cap classes at 15 students with one teacher and one assistant where substantial numbers of students need more intensive support, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
  • Pre-K teacher in all settings should have a B-2 instructional certificate, or certification for teaching students with disabilities or English Language Learners valid in the early childhood grades, within five years.
  • All teaching assistants within five years should have at least “Level 1 teaching assistant certification,” and the state will move towards requiring all to have a Child Development Associate (CDA).
  • Maintain current professional development requirements (175 hours per 5 years for lead teachers), with the goal of 40 hours per year.
  • State should provide list of curricula aligned with New York State Prekindergarten Foundation for the Common Core. The list should be reviewed every two years.
  • Provide comprehensive services and supports for at-risk students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners (ELLs).
  • Provide safe, quality, and accessible learning environments.
  • Provide and sustain data systems, and technical assistance, to use valid and reliable instruments to track student progress in all settings.

-Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


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