Early Childhood

Support for Universal Pre-K Grows as More States Jump on Board

By Libby Stanford — January 17, 2023 5 min read
A Pre-K student plays with the class guinea pig at Positive Tomorrows in Oklahoma City, Okla., on Aug. 17, 2021. Oklahoma is one of a handful of states offering universal pre-k to all students.
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Is free preschool a constitutional right? Seventy percent of voters in New Mexico think so, and they’re not the only ones getting behind increasingly popular universal pre-K policies.

This November, New Mexico voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to allocate more funding for education, including an estimated $150 million for pre-K and $100 million for K-12 programs annually. The measure added New Mexico to the growing number of states offering universal pre-K, in which all 4-year-olds can enroll in state-funded schooling before they reach kindergarten.

“We’ve known, through polling, research, and a several yearslong campaign, that this is a really popular proposal,” said Jacob Vigil, senior research and policy analyst at New Mexico Voices for Children, one of the nonprofits that campaigned for the ballot measure. “New Mexicans understand and want investments in the earliest years that lay the foundation for academic success.”

The ballot measure in New Mexico is considered a political victory for early-childhood-education advocates both in the state and beyond, as bipartisan support for universal pre-K policies grows.

In 2020, Colorado voters approved a nicotine tax that funds its universal preschool program, offering state-funded pre-K to all 4-year-olds starting this school year. And, last year, an effort to add pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds to the American education system fell just short of passing Congress when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., blocked President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal.

While early-childhood-education advocates have been calling for universal pre-K for decades, the programs have seen a new surge of interest recently, said William Gormley, a professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University and a co-director of the University’s Center for Research on Children in the U.S.

“Unlike many other issues in our society, universal pre-K is not as polarizing an issue in part because it delivers immediate benefits to children, it provides reassurances to parents, not to mention the rough equivalent of child care, which is sorely needed these days,” Gormley said. “And it has, over the years, been as attractive to red states as the blue states.”

Where is universal pre-K offered?

The number of states with universal pre-K can be hard to determine because it largely depends on how you define “universal.” The National Institute of Early Education Research states that universal pre-K programs should be offered to all students regardless of location or income status, require all school districts in the state to offer pre-K, and have funding mechanisms to support the enrollment of all students in prekindergarten programs.

While some states claim to offer universal pre-K, funding and enrollment caps prevent them from providing it to all students. And other states that haven’t developed a specific universal pre-K program have still managed to enroll a significant portion of the 4-year-old population into such programs.

In general, states are nearing universal status when they have enrolled at least 70 percent of the population of 4-year-olds in prekindergarten. As of 2021, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia achieved that benchmark, according to the NIEER’s 2021 State of Preschool Report, the most recent report of its kind.

Ten other states—Arkansas, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, and Texas—had at least 45 percent of students enrolled in prekindergarten, meaning they were within “striking distance” of achieving 70 percent enrollment, according to NIEER.

The numbers indicate growing bipartisan support for state-funded pre-K efforts in states that typically lean conservative—such as Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and Texas—and states that usually vote liberal—like New York, California, and Vermont— all supporting prekindergarten.

Gormley believes more lawmakers have become aware of the science that shows how important early learning experiences are for children’s long-term success.

“I think that some of the neuroscience evidence has seeped into our popular culture enough that it is now widely accepted by politicians,” Gormley said. “And it helps to inform the judgments they make when they are facing competing programs that are being considered for public support.”

‘A long laundry list of gains’

Early-childhood advocates in New Mexico are hopeful that the new funding for universal pre-K will help improve student outcomes and curb the impact of inequities based on poverty levels and race.

“When kids enter kindergarten, those inequities are already present, they’re already behind their high-income peers,” Vigil said of lower-income children. “It stands to be a real generational change, a generational shift, in the trajectory of our state. And it’s a game changer in terms of the long-term vision for making our state’s population and economy stronger.”

Over the course of 20 years, Gormley and other researchers at the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. studied a universal pre-K program in Tulsa, Okla., and found that early childhood education can lead to a “laundry list of gains” for students, including improved standardized test scores in elementary school, a greater tendency to enroll in honors and AP classes in middle and high school, fewer course failures throughout the education system, and improved attendance.

More recently, the research center found that the percentage of Tulsa students enrolled in college is 12 percentage points higher among students who participated in the pre-K program than students who did not.

The outcomes of the Tulsa program can be used as evidence to show that universal pre-K is beneficial for both local and state government, Gormley said. The research center has done multiple cost-benefit analyses of the Tulsa program and found that the long-term benefits of it outweigh the short-term costs by a ratio of 4 to 1.

“A state with a strong preschool program is likely to experience better educational outcomes, a more highly educated workforce, a more productive workforce, and greater growth down the road than a state that does not have a strong preschool system,” he said.

But greater investment in education shouldn’t stop at that level, Gormley and Vigil said. It’s important for lawmakers and state education agencies to ensure that students are given a high quality experience through 12th grade.

“The long-term success of a universal pre-K program depends on much, much more than the quality or even the [participation] rate of the universal pre-K program,” Gormley said. “For universal pre-K advocates today, I would counsel them to focus almost as much attention on how to design K-12 classroom experiences as how to design preschool classroom experiences. They’re both equally important if you want the initial cognitive and social-emotional gains that spring from preschool to persist over time.”

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