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Free preschool: What’s the state of universal pre-K programs and who can they benefit?

Many parents assume they’ll send their children to pre-K before kindergarten. After all, vast amounts of research shows that preschool benefits kids socially, emotionally, physically and cognitively. It helps prepare them for the expectations of structured school and exposes them to new ways of learning and interacting with the world. It can even result in better health outcomes and lower rates of crime and teen pregnancy, studies say. With so many perks, why wouldn’t a parent send their kid to pre-K?

Sadly, many parents get a rude awakening when they learn the price of preschool in America. Pre-K is not free for all students in public schools like grades K-12. And while some states have started rolling out free pre-K programs, in many areas, free programs are typically only available to low-income families, if at all, says Dr. Danielle Twigg, founder of Little Bird Consulting, an early childhood education consulting service. For example, the federally funded pre-K program Head Start is eligible to families who are below the federal poverty line, but even within that program, the spots are limited.

Twigg is a former elementary school teacher who has worked in preschools, and she holds three degrees in education, including a doctorate. She says she has observed that many other developed nations have free, universal pre-K for all. But in the U.S., parents are often left with the option of expensive private schools, which can be unaffordable, even for middle-class families. While free preschool options in America are slowly increasing, Twigg says, parents are sometimes forced to find creative financing options or skip sending their kids to preschool altogether.

So what’s a parent to do? Here’s the scoop on why preschool is so beneficial, the state of free pre-K programs in our country and where things are headed.

The importance of preschool

Putting your child in a preschool program the year before kindergarten has countless benefits, Twigg says.

“From the very start, it’s usually the children’s first introduction to a more formal, structured school setting,” she says, and social and emotional learning are the core focus.

Here are just some of the skills kids typically learn in pre-K, she says:

  • Self-management skills and how to work with other kids

  • Making independent choices about learning and playing with things and in ways they may not have encountered previously

  • Development of gross and fine motor skills

  • Development of literacy and numeracy skills

It also helps get kids used to a routine and expectations of school-like behavior, such as lining up or transitioning from one activity to the next.

According to “Pre-K in American Cities,” a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers, preschool attendees:  

  • Are more prepared for school

  • Are more likely to get health and dental care

  • Make more cognitive, social and emotional gains that help them later in life

  • Show reduced rates of crime and teen pregnancy, in the long-term

  • Demonstrate increased lifetime earnings and health outcomes

Lack of free preschool

Because of all of these benefits, “Universal access to high-quality programs for 3- and 4-year old children is standard in most Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries,” Twigg says. “Some of the leaders include Sweden, Finland, Japan, Australia and New Zealand — most offer free preschool programs for 3- to 5-year-old children.”

However, the U.S. is lagging behind most other developed countries where there is no universal free preschool program, Twigg says.

“Early childhood is largely underfunded in the United States,” she says.

According to the NIEER report, many U.S. cities have pre-K programs, but “many of these programs lack key quality benchmarks, such as learning goals, a high teacher-child ratio and teacher education requirements, that extensive research has shown deliver lasting benefits.” Additionally, many of the cities that do have high-quality programs aren’t reaching enough kids, with fewer than 30 percent of eligible preschoolers attending, the report says. In fact, only 60 percent of the largest U.S. cities have a pre-K program that reaches more than 30 percent of 4-year-olds.

Funding varies from state to state, Twigg says, as do the quality of offerings, because the funding levels don’t always allow the hiring of teachers with strong qualifications. Additionally, free pre-K programs are disjointed, with some offered at federal or state or city levels, without much uniformity, Twigg says. Many programs are based on need, which is incredibly valuable for disadvantaged families. However, many middle-class families simply can’t afford the rates at private preschools, she says. For example, near Boston, where Twigg lives, private school may cost the equivalent of a college education. She says she has seen pre-K programs in Boston that charge anywhere from $13,000 to $20,000 for a year of preschool.  

Free preschool programs that do exist

Wondering what these free pre-K programs look like? Here are some of the programs that are currently out there:

Federal: Head Start

Head Start is a federally funded preschool program primarily for kids ages 3 and 4 in low-income families. (The program called Early Head Start focuses more on child care for younger children.) Both programs are run by the Administration for Children and Families, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Head Start programs prepare America’s most vulnerable young children to succeed in school and in life beyond school,” says an ACF public affairs spokesperson. “To achieve this, Head Start programs deliver services to children age birth to age 5 and their families in core areas of early learning, health and family well-being. The Office of Head Start (OHS) administers grant funding and oversight to the 1,600 agencies that provide Head Start services in communities across the country.”

The program allows children with disabilities.

To be eligible for Head Start and its free learning and development services, including pre-K, your family must be at or below the poverty level (as defined by the federal government). Also eligible are homeless children, children in foster care or children in families receiving public assistance, regardless of their family’s income. Your local Head Start program may have additional requirements. Find your local office with their Head Start center locator.

Of course, government funding is limited, so there isn’t a spot for every eligible child, and there is a waitlist.

State and local programs

Many states and cities have been launching their own initiatives to bring free pre-K to more children. Just about every state has some sort of free pre-K program, Twigg says, but eligibility is often limited. She says 39 states are working to form a universal pre-K program so any child can attend for free, “but it’s probably going to be a while before it gets the full rollout.”

Some states and cities are ahead of the curve:

  • According to the NIEER report, Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia have already launched state-funded pre-K services, which serve 4-year-olds in Jacksonville, Tulsa and Atlanta.

  • Washington, D.C., has funding that provides pre-K programs to 3- and 4-year olds.

  • New York City has a free program for 4-year-olds and is scaling up to serve 3-year-olds.

Other cities have their own limited programs. For example, Pre-K 4 SA is a government-sponsored program in San Antonio, Texas, that has four preschool centers with certified teachers. This program is free for low-income families, and tuition is based on a sliding scale for other families.

Siana Otero, a mother of three in San Antonio, couldn’t find free or even affordable pre-K options for middle-income earners.

“There aren’t many options,” she said. “So you’ll be paying a couple thousand dollars for private preschool, and it’s hard to find a place where you’re comfortable.”

She ended up staying home with her eldest son instead of sending him to pre-K.

When Pre-K 4 SA launched, however, she sent her two younger children through the program. It boasts highly educated teachers, and Otero has been thrilled with the quality of education her kids have received. She points to a report that says Pre-K 4 SA kids scored better on state tests than children who didn’t go to public preschool. On the sliding scale, her family pays less than $300 a month for a pre-K program that includes breakfast and snacks and has an early drop-off option and an after-school option for working parents.  

Finding other preschool solutions

Some parents are forced to get creative and find other ways to send their kids to pre-K. When Chris Balthrop and her family moved into a neighborhood near downtown San Antonio, her realtor warned her about the quality of nearby public schools.

They were encouraged to look into private options as one of her children approached pre-K. But Balthrop and her husband were teachers and preferred public school, and they learned that a small public school in their neighborhood was improving and trying to increase attendance. They even received a flyer in the mail from the school encouraging nearby parents to send their kids there, including for pre-K.

“We met who would be the new principal and a school board member from the area, and he said he hoped we’d get the word out about the school,” Balthrop says. “But we couldn’t go for pre-K, because we didn’t qualify.”

She began worrying that expensive private school might be the only option, but as a last resort, Balthrop reached out to the school’s superintendent and proposed a tuition-based option that would allow families like hers who didn’t qualify for a free option to pay to attend public pre-K. Much to her surprise, the school agreed to provide all-day preschool for $500 a month, which Balthrop said was far more affordable than day care or private preschool. It was a success, and other schools in the district are now considering this program.

The future of preschool

As time goes on, an increasing number of free or affordable programs are expected to become available. According to the NIEER report, “A positive trend is that the number of pre-K programs is growing in U.S. cities, and much of this growth is fueled by cities’ willingness to create new, local funding streams to establish and sustain the programs.”

If your family can’t afford private preschool and doesn’t have any free options but you want to provide an experience closer to preschool, Twigg recommends you:

  • Look online for homeschooling ideas for either you or a caretaker to implement

  • Contact the school district your child will potentially attend to ask about supplemental resources, like part-time programs, or other agencies

  • Check your local public library for ideas on how to provide preschool-like support

  • Start a playgroup with other like-minded parents

Also, don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for more options. Twigg says parents like Balthrop are leading the way and that grassroots efforts by parents demanding better access to free pre-K are important.

“We’re a developed country, and there are other countries around the world that are surpassing us, that are less economically balanced and powerful, and this is their priority,” she says. “So it’s a matter of making it a priority. Advocacy from parents and teachers and stories like this — they are so important to get the word out to make things happen. We have to rally the troops.”

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