Early Childhood

Which States Offer Universal Pre-K? It’s More Complicated Than You Might Think

By Libby Stanford — January 25, 2023 2 min read
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Universal pre-kindergarten has become a buzz term lately, capturing the attention of federal and state politicians as evidence shows that students do better when they start school earlier.

But determining whether a state-funded preschool program is truly universal isn’t as simple as it seems, and states that have universal pre-K laws or programs don’t always achieve high enrollment.

“What constitutes universal preschool is fuzzy because people use the term differently,” said Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

At its simplest, universal pre-K is any state-funded preschool program in which age is the only criterion for eligibility. But that doesn’t necessarily mean such programs are universal in practice. Limits on funding and caps on enrollment curb the number of 4-year-olds who can participate.

That is the case in Georgia, which has a state lottery-funded pre-K program for which all 4-year-olds are eligible.

While that program theoretically is open to every preschooler, it’s often difficult for children to get in because funding levels depend on fluctuations in state lottery revenue, Barnett said.

“Even though districts can offer [preschool] and parents can apply and you’re eligible, there’s not necessarily enough money allocated to go around,” Barnett said. “Yet they still call it a universal program.”

Barnett and his team often look at student enrollment to determine if a state has achieved universal pre-K. The institute considers a program with 70 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled to have universal status. Only the District of Columbia and a handful of states—Florida, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Wisconsin—met that benchmark in the 2019-20 school year, the last year of data available that wasn’t impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the complicated nature of universal pre-K, more states are jumping on board and federal politicians, including Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and President Joe Biden, have been calling for a national program.

“Let’s get behind President Biden’s call for free universal early education and get started by expanding preschool in Title I schools and enhancing kindergarten as a sturdy bridge to the early grades,” Cardona said in a Jan. 24 speech to a crowd of educators, parents, and journalists about his priorities for 2023.

To track universal pre-K across the country, the map below shows which states claim to have universal pre-K programs or policies and how close they are to actually being universal based on 2019-20 enrollment rates for 4-year-olds.

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