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Quality preschool for low-income children

What is it?

Children from low-income families typically have access to fewer resources and opportunities to be prepared for and succeed in school, compared to their high-income peers, and they face persistent gaps in key indicators of long-term educational success, such as kindergarten readiness and early math and reading scores.

The 70 percent of four-year-olds in the United States who enroll in formal pre-kindergarten programs are more likely to graduate high school than those who do not, and those left out and left behind are disproportionately children of color and those from low-income families. But cities can take the lead on narrowing this gap and setting all students on the path to academic success by expanding access to formal preschool education for three- and four-year-old children and simultaneously improving the quality of existing preschool programs. High-quality preschool programs represent an investment in the workers, leaders, and innovators of tomorrow by helping low-income children build academic and social skills, promoting their cognitive development and mental health, and preparing them to succeed in school. These programs can also be a strategy to address economic inequities for workers today.

On average, the cost of center-based childcare amounts to about 50 percent of the income of a family of three living at the federal poverty level. That means expanding preschool access can also remove barriers to employment and help build economic security for low-income parents — particularly women — and contribute to building a stronger economy for all. Every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education results can save $8 to $16 in public spending related to special education, grade retention, criminal justice, and welfare.

In addition to the PolicyLink resources listed on the right, see the Children’s Defense Fund, the Center for Public EducationStrategies for Childrenand the National Institute for Early Education Research for more resources on quality preschool for low-income children.

Who implements it?

  • Elected and appointed city officials can build public will in support of preschool programs for low-income children, and work with other local leaders to develop funding sources, define quality standards, and support professional development for early childhood educators.
  • Business leaders, community-based organizations, and school districts can ensure strong momentum and funding exist to support affordable preschool programs.

Key considerations

The most effective preschool programs for low-income children require secure and reliable funding sources and are paired with high-quality curriculum development, safe and accessible facilities, and ongoing professional development training for teachers. Cities seeking to implement preschool programs for low-income children must consider a range of related legal and logistical questions.

  • Universal or targeted programs: New York City’s ambitious preschool plan offers universal access for all four-year-olds in the city, while programs in other cities are targeted to serve disadvantaged children from low-income families and communities of color who have historically lacked equitable educational resources. Many programs use a sliding scale that includes free, subsidized, and full-cost tuition. Universal approaches may receive more public support, allowing them to reach more children and be more effective.
  • Funding sources: Cities have used various approaches to secure funding for expanded preschool access. With voter support, sales or other tax increases can be a primary source of funds that might be complemented by philanthropic or private business contributions. Some federal support has also been available through the Early Learning Challenge and Preschool Development Grants from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Coordination with school districts: Cities and school districts can establish formal partnerships to support preschool programs and services and to facilitate students’ transition to kindergarten.
  • Curriculum requirements: Leaders should establish high curriculum standards that prioritize instructional design that is developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate and incorporates common assessments to facilitate standardized evaluation.
  • Wraparound supports: The impact of quality preschool instruction can be amplified when it is coordinated with school- or neighborhood-based wraparound supports focused on enhancing health, safety, and opportunities for children and families.
  • Facilities: Safe and suitable facilities, equipment, and supplies are essential to the operation of high-quality preschools.
  • Developing an effective teacher workforce: Cities and school districts should invest in programs to recruit and train highly qualified early-childhood educators, and should provide ongoing professional development to preschool staff.

Where is it working?

School districts play the primary role in delivery quality K-12 education for children from underserved communities, but cities can take the lead on expanding access to high quality preschool for three- and four-year-olds as a key component of a strong and equitable cradle-to-career system.

  • In San Antonio, the city provides Pre-K 4 SA, a full-day pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds. It is free of charge for qualifying families, including those who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, who are homeless, or who speak English as a second language. Children currently or previously in foster care are also eligible. In the fall of 2013, the inaugural class of 700 students tested far below the national average in six key indicators of kindergarten readiness; by the following spring, they had caught up with the national sample in three outcomes and outperformed their peers on the other three indicators. The program offers transportation, healthy meals, and extended day care. It is funded by a one-eighth-cent sales tax at an annual cost of about $7.81 for the average San Antonio household. Pre-K 4 SA expects to serve 3,700 children per year by 2017.
  • Since 2007, the Denver Preschool Program has partnered with nearly 250 quality-rated preschool sites within the city and county of Denver and invested more than $67 million in tuition support for children in need. Voters approved a 0.15-percent sales tax in 2006 to fund the program, and reauthorized the funding for an additional 12 years in 2014. During the 2014-2015 school year, the Denver Preschool Program helped 4,370 children attend a quality-rated preschool. The typical student who receives tuition support comes from a family earning at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, and receives an average of $477 a month in tuition support.