As Preschool Enrollment Hits All-Time High Access Disparities Widen

As overall enrollment soars, acess to public preschools and affordable options dwindles. See more about the state of early education here.
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By Wyndi Kappes, Associate Editor
Published May 2, 2024
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The value of a good start can’t be understated. Studies show children enrolled in early education programs like preschool are more likely to be academically prepared for future grades and have higher graduation rates and earning potential than those not enrolled.

A new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research shows a promising turn for these good starts. After numbers plummeted during the pandemic, preschool enrollment in the United States hit all-time highs, with more states committing to providing publicly funded preschool education for every child. However, as enrollment numbers rise, disparities in access and quality persist, posing crucial questions about the future of early education in the country.

Enrollment Hits All-Time Highs

The 2022-2023 school year saw a significant surge in preschool enrollment, with 1,631,968 children attending state-funded preschool—a 7 percent increase from 2021-2022. The number of children enrolled in preschool increased in all except six states. Enrollment of 3-year-olds increased (by 11 percent) to 7 percent of 3-year-olds and enrollment of 4-year-olds increased (by 6 percent) to 35 percent of 4-year-olds.

Several states spearheaded this expansion, introducing new universal preschool initiatives that propelled the nation to these record-high enrollment percentages. However, despite this progress, the total number of children enrolled in state-funded preschool remains below pre-pandemic levels, signaling ongoing challenges in accessibility for those who can’t afford private schooling.

Funding Reaches Unprecedented Levels

Accompanying the enrollment surge is a remarkable increase in preschool funding. States allocated $11.73 billion to state-funded preschool in 2022-2023—a staggering 11 percent rise from the previous year. This marks an all-time high in preschool spending, reflecting a concerted effort to prioritize early education.

While the average state spending per child has surpassed pre-pandemic levels, it still falls short of the cost required for a high-quality full-day program. This underscores the pressing need for sustained investment to ensure that every child receives the quality education they deserve.

Navigating Access and Quality Disparities

While progress has been made in expanding access and funding, disparities in quality persist across states. While some states meet all ten quality standards benchmarks, others fall short, with only eight states meeting fewer than half of the benchmarks.

Inadequate funding remains a significant barrier to achieving high-quality preschool education, compounded by policy discrepancies and workforce challenges. Addressing these disparities is essential to ensure that every child receives a quality early education experience.

What’s Next

As the nation navigates the landscape of preschool access, quality, and funding, crucial decisions lie ahead. States must prioritize equitable access, commit to high-quality standards, and address funding gaps to ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive.

The upcoming presidential election year offers a pivotal moment to reevaluate priorities and commit to investing in early childhood education. With the right policies and investments, the United States can lead the way in providing quality preschool education for all children, regardless of their zip code.

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