As early childhood researchers, we’ve spent our careers steeped in an enormous body of work that documents the long-term positive impacts of quality early care and education on the lives of those fortunate enough to experience it. The pre-academic and social-emotional skills children develop in preschool—the ability to manage frustration, work with peers, ask for help, and recover from setbacks and disruptions—create the foundation upon which future school and life success is built.
Yet with all the research demonstrating the benefits of early education for those most in need—and there is plenty—access to quality preschool programs remains inequitable. Often, access depends on a family’s ability to pay for and transport their child to and from center-based programs—which can cost more than tuition at in-state public college—or whether they happen to live in one of the handful of cities and states that offer free or sliding-scale public preschool programs. To put it in perspective, even before the pandemic, just 34 percent of 4-year-olds and 6 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in public preschool.
The Biden administration’s American Families Plan aims to change this, calling for unprecedented investments in our nation’s system of early learning and care. The plan, which faces an uphill battle in Congress, proposes a $200 billion federal investment for free, universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as $225 billion to support access to affordable, inclusive and quality learning and child care opportunities, including child care centers, family child care providers and Early/Head Start.
As cities and states explore policy strategies for how to use this unprecedented funding to expand pre-K, early childhood leaders will have a great deal of control over who has access to pre-K through policy decisions that influence which students enroll, where they enroll and ultimately, what they can achieve academically. As cities and states implement different strategies, one of the questions that will arise is: Which policies are best at creating pathways to better outcomes, especially for children from under-resourced communities?
Chicago may be on to a strategy that works.
For years, the students who enrolled in Chicago Public Schools’ limited number of full-day pre-K classrooms were largely from white families living in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. But recognizing this imbalance, in 2013, the City of Chicago rolled out major policy changes to create more equitable enrollment in pre-K programs.
The policy changes that arose from this effort included increasing the number of full-day pre-K classrooms, reallocating classrooms to create a stronger presence in “high-priority” neighborhoods, and grassroots awareness campaigns to families whose children were not already enrolled in pre-K. The goal was to enroll more students from “high-priority” groups—in other words, students of color and students living in neighborhoods with lower incomes and higher unemployment—to help them better prepare for success in kindergarten and beyond.