State Prekindergarten Programs - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

State Prekindergarten Programs


State prekindergarten programs are state-funded initiatives in the United States that provide classroom-based early education services to young children prior to kindergarten entry. The structure and focus of these programs vary among the states. In most cases they are voluntary preschool programs provided free of charge to eligible children three to four years of age. Although usually administered by the state Department of Education, in many states prekindergarten programs may be located in public or private schools, community-based organizations, within Head Start programs or in other settings. Some states have chosen to create their own prekindergarten program (e.g., North Carolina’s “More at Four”) while others have contributed state funds to supplement federal Head Start funding. Both approaches are considered state prekindergarten programs since they are state-funded educational programs for three- to four-year-olds. In each case, state-funded programs increase the supply of early education programs in the state.

During the last twenty years, many states in the United States have adopted or expanded their prekindergarten program to promote children’s school readiness and eventual academic success (as depicted in the figure). Prior to 1980, only seven states funded programs. By the early 1990s, this number had grown to twenty-seven states serving 290,000 children. By 1998, forty states had prekindergarten programs, serving more than 700,000 children. Less growth has been seen in recent years, which may be due to the budget crises states are facing.

A primary rationale for both the development and expansion of state prekindergarten programs has been the promotion of children’s school readiness and later school success. Research on school readiness and early intervention programs has fueled this national attention. In particular, studies of children entering kindergarten have found that family risk factors (e.g., low maternal education, welfare dependency, low income) are associated with lower proficiency in early reading, math, and general knowledge. This is consistent with earlier findings that low- income children are less likely to arrive at school ready and are more likely to be educationally disadvantaged or have difficulty in school. For many policy makers, this learning gap upon school entry indicates a need to intervene earlier in children’s lives. Evidence from early intervention, such as the Perry Preschool Program, Abecedarian Project, and Chicago Child-Parent Centers, demonstrates that one way to better prepare children for kindergarten is to offer school readiness skills in high-quality preschool settings. This approach has been demonstrated to be cost-effective, producing far greater gains for society than the cost of the investment, and thereby providing an economic incentive to invest early in children’s lives (see Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000).



Growth in State PreKindergarten Programs (1980-2004)

Sources: Adams and Sandfort (1994); Barnett et al. (2003); NIEER (2004). Data on the exact number of children enrolled in state prekindergarten programs was not available for 1980 or 1987.


This push for school readiness was manifest in national policy in 1989 when President Bush and the nation’s governors announced six national education goals, the first being, “By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn.” This goal included three objectives—one of which was as follows: “All children will have access to high-quality and developmentally appropriate preschool programs that help prepare children for school.” And the states have responded. Today, the vast majority of states fund a prekindergarten program. Yet most state programs serve only a small percentage of children or only fund a part-day program that fails to meet the needs of parents who work full-time. A recent survey of state prekindergarten programs by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) (Barnett et al., 2004) concluded that only 10 percent of the nation’s three- to four-year-olds were enrolled in state prekindergarten programs and that the vast majority of these children are four-year-olds in the year prior to kindergarten.

Most states do not offer access to all preschool-aged children, choosing to target their prekindergarten programs to children in low-income families or those who have other factors that place them at greatest risk of educational difficulties and school failure. A few states, however, have established or are taking steps toward establishing universal prekindergarten. For example, Georgia currently provides funding for all four-year olds, while Oklahoma reimburses school districts (that choose to provide prekindergarten) for all four-year-olds. New York has also established a universal prekindergarten program. However, the program has not received funding increases as originally scheduled, so it generally remains available only to children in low-income families and children who have other risk factors.

NIEER concluded that all states need to improve their quality standards for prekindergarten programs. For example, only 18 states required prekindergarten teachers to have the four-year college degree that every state requires of kindergarten teachers and that has been recommended by the National Research Council for every preschool education classroom. NIEER also found that although total state spending for state-funded prekindergarten exceeded $2.5 billion in 20022003, three-fifths of this spending was from five states—California, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Also, in most states, spending per child was too low to ensure quality.

The NIEER report identified three states with exemplary prekindergarten programs: Georgia, Oklahoma, and New Jersey. Interestingly, each state uses a different approach to finance and structure its program. Georgia offers preschool in a range of early childhood settings to all four-year-old children, funded by lottery funds, but does not require that teachers have a bachelor’s degree. Oklahoma has a universal program for four-year-olds that is based on district-level provision of prekindergarten. As a result, the program is not available everywhere in the state. All preschool teachers are certified and receive the same salaries and benefits as other public school teachers. State funding is provided through the regular education funding formula, which lends financial stability to the program. New Jersey’s “Abbott District” preschool program provides prekindergarten services to both three- and four-year-olds in the state’s largest and most disadvantaged school districts. The program is the combined result of a court order and legislation. The “Abbott District” preschool program requires the highest standards in the nation (e.g., a certified teacher who is paid a public school salary, and an assistant teacher in each class of fifteen children). NewJersey also provides funds for half-day preschool to 102 other school districts, with somewhat lower quality standards.

Other states continue to expand their state prekindergarten programs. In 2006, the majority of state legislatures increased funding for their state’s prekindergarten program—resulting in a cumulative $14.1 billion across the fifty states and the District of Columbia (PreKnow, 2006). It is the hope of many child advocates that these state prekindergarten programs will continue to be critical building blocks of the early care and education system in the United States. See also Preschool/Prekindergarten Programs.

Further Readings: Adams, G. (1994). First steps, promising futures: State prekindergarten initiatives in the early 1990s. Washington, DC: Children’s Defense Fund, Barnett, W. S., K. B., Robin, J. T. Hustedt, and K. L. Schulman (2004). The state of preschool: 2004 state preschool yearbook. Rutgers, NJ: The National Institute for Early Education Research; Children’s Defense Fund (2003). Key facts in child care, early education, and school-age care. Washington, DC: Author; Lee, V. E., and D. T. Burkam (2002). Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences in achievement as children begin school. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute; Mitchell, A., et al. (1998). Early childhood programs and the public schools: Between promise and practice. Dover, MA: Auburn House Publishing Company; National Child Care Information Center (June 2004). Information products: State funded prekindergarten initiatives. Available online at; PreKnow (2006). Votes count: Legislative action on Pre-K, Fiscal Year 2006. Washington, DC: Author; Shonkoff, J., and D. Phillips (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Elizabeth Rigby