The Slow March Toward Universal Pre-K Just Made a Quick Step

The call for universal public pre-k education is growing stronger and more public funding is available than ever before. Part of the drumbeat comes from the recognition that high-quality preschool education addresses some of the inequities of our educational system where children can start from so far behind that they never catch up. This year’s launch of universal preschool for 65,000 children in New York City could well be a game changer.

What the Research Says

Research studies consistently reveal that early education has enormous impact on children’s development – both cognitive and emotional. This improves their readiness for school and prepares them for academic achievement.
Significant facts include that an at-risk child who does not receive high-quality early childhood education is:
• 25% more likely to drop out of school
• 40% more likely to become a teen parent
• 50% more likely to be placed in special education
• 60% more likely not to attend college
• 70% more likely to be arrested for violent crime.

There’s also a financial argument to be made for universal preschool. Expert opinions vary about the exact amount but the gist is that for every dollar invested in early childhood education, the economic return on investment ranges from $8.00 to $11.00 over a child’s lifetime.

Where Are We Now?

The National Institute for Early Education Research found that for the 2013-2014 school year when Head Start is included, 41.5% of 4–year-olds and 14.5% of 3-year-olds are served by publicly funded pre-k. They also found that state funding for pre-k that year increased by more than $116 million in 40 states plus D.C. This investment was confirmed in research from The Education Commission of the States.
The Department of Education inaugurated a Preschool Development Grant program. The grants are designed to improve the quality and quantity of available early childhood education. So far, eighteen states have received the grants.

Some of the cities with universal pre-k include Chicago, Washington D.C., San Antonio, Tulsa, Miami, and now New York. To put New York City’s enrollment of 65,000 pre-k students into perspective, it is more than the total enrollment of public school students in all grades in Washington, D.C. or Boston. New York’s initiative, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio was greatly aided by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget surplus of $340 million that is helping to pay for it.

In Philadelphia, there is a commission that is working on how to pay for pre-k for 40,000 eligible three- and four-year-olds. Seattle voters have approved $58 million for a 4-year pilot program for full preschool. In Vermont, one-third of the school districts will be ready to launch universal pre-k within the next year. This is in response to a new state law that requires every Vermont school district to offer pre-K education programs for 35 weeks a year for a minimum of 10 hours per week.

And just last week Congressman John Delaney from Maryland introduced legislation to make pre-k free nationwide for 4-year-olds. He proposes to pay for it with a 1.5% tax increase on individual income and capital gains over $500,000.


While cities and states have been steadily increasing their support of public preschool in recent years, there is a lot of momentum on the issue right now. The rollout of the New York City universal pre-k program will be under close scrutiny. The question is whether or not the investment in preschool, particularly for underprivileged students results in greater student achievement in kindergarten and early primary grades.