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

Free preschool is the exception in the U.S. Here's how experts say you can find programs near you and advocate for universal pre-K.

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 preschool before kindergarten. After all, vast amounts of research shows that preschool, also sometimes called pre-K, benefits kids socially, emotionally, physically and cognitively. It helps prepare them for school and exposes them to new ways of interacting with the world. It can even result in better health outcomes and lower rates of crime and teen pregnancy, studies say. Sadly, many parents get a rude awakening when they learn that preschool in America isn’t free for all students. 

While some cities and states have been 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. Instead, many parents have little choice but to pay for public or private preschool programs, which may not be financially possible, even for middle class families.

So, what’s a parent to do? Here’s the inside scoop on why preschool is so beneficial, the state of free pre-K programs in the U.S. and how to find and advocate for preschool programs that fit your budget.

The importance of preschool education

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 explains, and social and emotional learning are the core focus. Here are just some of the skills kids typically learn in pre-K, according to Twigg:

  • Self-management skills.
  • How to work with other kids.
  • How to make independent choices about learning.
  • New ways to play that they may not have encountered previously.
  • Gross and fine motor skills.
  • Literacy and numeracy skills.

Preschool also helps get kids used to a routine and the expectations of school-like behavior, such as lining up or transitioning from one activity to the next. According to researchers at Georgetown University, the benefits even extend into the next stages of schooling and beyond. Former preschool attendees have:

  • Stronger cognitive and social emotional skills.
  • Better math and self-regulation skills in elementary school.
  • Higher enrollment in AP or IB courses in high school.
  • Fewer failed courses and chronic absences.

Later in life, the research shows kids who attended preschool are more likely to graduate high school on time and attend college. They’re also more likely to be registered to vote and participate in civic engagement.

Is preschool free in the U.S.?

In many other countries, preschool is free for all 3- and 4-year-olds, Twigg says. “Some of the leaders include Sweden, Finland, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.” However, the U.S. lags behind in creating similar programs and improving access and funding for early childhood education. Only a handful of states offer free preschool programs, and many have income limits and strict policies on who can participate.

The short answer for why universal pre-K doesn’t exist on a large scale in the U.S. is lack of funding, says Suzanne Barchers, an author and teacher who holds a doctorate in education and is currently the Education Advisory Board Chair for the learning app Lingokids. But, she adds, there are additional challenges that free preschool programs face on multiple fronts, including:

Teacher and facility shortages

“Several governors have pushed through legislation for universal pre-K, only to find that staffing and infrastructure are lacking,” Barchers says. She notes that historically, early child education workers are paid less than their counterparts working in upper grades. “Post-COVID, the disparity has become more problematic, and educators find better paying positions,” Barchers explains. “Sustained funding for such programs often feels tenuous at best.”

Lack of flexibility for parents

There are also logistical challenges for parents, Barchers says. Since preschool programs are usually only four or five hours per day, and some as little as 15 hours per week, working parents often have to coordinate additional means of child care. “Quite frankly, it’s easier to keep children in daycare or full-day caretaker situations,” she adds.

Limited accessibility

Free pre-K programs are often disjointed, with some offered at federal or state or city levels, without much uniformity, Twigg says. Many free programs are based on need, which is incredibly valuable for disadvantaged families. However, many middle-class families simply can’t afford private preschools, she says, which can be surprisingly expensive. 

As time goes on, an increasing number of free or affordable programs may become available, but until then, many parents are forced to spend huge amounts on care for preschool age kids or forgo it.

What to know about New York City’s universal pre-K program

For the past 10 years, New York City’s has had a free preschool program celebrated as a national model. Since 2014, every 4-year-old in New York has been eligible for a free prekindergarten seat, which was created to help parents struggling to live in an increasingly unaffordable city and to boost the economy. The program has been so successful that it was praised by experts and thought of as an example other cities could adopt. The city had been aiming to expand the program to 3-year-olds, but those plans were recently abandoned when the program’s funding was cut by current Mayor Eric Adams.

According to the Education Department’s website, all 3-year-olds must compete for seats in just half of the city’s 32 local school districts, which has led to a great deal of anxiety for lower-income and middle-class families submitting applications by March 1, 2024.

The situation is an example of how crucial universal pre-K programs are for so many families in need of child care solutions.

How to find free and affordable preschool programs

While there’s no federal program in place to provide free preschool to all families, here are some of the free or low-cost preschool programs that are currently available in the U.S.:

Head Start

Head Start is a federally-funded preschool program primarily for kids ages 3 and 4 from low-income families. For even younger children, parents can look into a similar program called Early Head Start. Both programs are run by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

“Head Start programs prepare America’s most vulnerable young children to succeed in school and in life beyond school,” says an ACF representative. These programs largely focus on skills related to:

  • Early learning and development.
  • Health.
  • Family well-being.

To be eligible for Head Start, your family must be at or below the poverty level (as defined by the federal government). Children in foster care and those who are homeless or receiving public assistance, regardless of household income, are also eligible. Head Start programs also work with children with disabilities. 

Of course, government funding is limited, so there isn’t a spot for every eligible child, and there may be a waitlist. Your local Head Start program may also have additional requirements. You can find your local office using the Head Start center locator.

State and local programs

Many states and cities have launched their own initiatives to bring free pre-K to more children, but Twigg says eligibility is often limited to lower-income families. 

For example, Pre-K 4 SA is a government-sponsored program in San Antonio, Texas, that includes four preschool centers with certified teachers. The program is free for low-income families, while tuition is based on a sliding scale for other families. Additionally, San Antonio’s school district has some early childhood education centers offering free pre-K to eligible families.

Similar programs are available in other cities and states, but the requirements vary. To find which programs are available in your state, you can visit ChildCare.Gov.

Limited universal preschool

While the U.S. does not have a federal program to provide universal preschool, some states have created or are working to expand access to universal pre-K programs locally. However, without proper funding, resources and standardization, it’s a long and bumpy process, Barchers says.

“Governors in several states, such as Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and others, have pushed through support, with plans to fully fund universal pre-K within the next few years,” Barchers says. “However, the logistical problems, like staffing and building space, threaten to delay or derail the efforts.”

Given the dearth of preschool options, some states have even opted to give funding for pre-K to alternatives to public education programs, like private and faith-based child care programs. Parents should check with their state educational agencies, city and school district to find out what preschool options are available nearby.

Quality alternatives to preschool

For some families, seeking pre-K options outside of local schools and programs may also be a possibility. If your family lacks free options and can’t afford private preschool, but you want to provide a preschool experience, Twigg recommends:

  • Looking online for homeschooling ideas for either you or a caretaker to implement.
  • Contacting the school district to ask about supplemental resources, like part-time programs.
  • Checking your local public library for ideas on how to provide preschool-like support.
  • Starting a playgroup with other like-minded parents.

How to advocate for affordable early childhood education

Parents who live in areas without free or affordable preschool options often have to get creative and advocate for themselves.

When Chris Balthrop and her family moved near San Antonio several years ago, her realtor warned her about the quality of nearby public schools. They were encouraged to look into private preschool options, but Balthrop and her husband were teachers and preferred public school. They also learned that a public school in their neighborhood was improving and trying to increase attendance, including for pre-K. 

“We met 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.”

Balthrop reached out to the superintendent and proposed a tuition-based option that would allow families like hers who didn’t qualify for free preschool 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 private preschool. The program Balthrop initiated was a success and eventually expanded to other schools within the district.

For those wanting to expand preschool options locally, Barchers suggests parents can get involved in advocating for more free and affordable pre-K options by:

  • Documenting problems from lack of early childhood education.
  • Collecting anecdotal evidence on the efficacy of early childhood education programs.
  • Supporting politicians who advocate for early childhood education.
  • Getting involved in your local school district to lobby for pre-K access.
  • Supporting tax increases and/or legislation that provides for pre-K.
  • Bringing media attention to the issue, such as writing an Op-Ed. 

The bottom line

There’s no question that preschool is invaluable. Study after study continues to reveal its short-term and long-term benefits. But, unlike grades K-12, free public preschool is still unavailable in most areas of the U.S. The number of state and city programs is expanding, but only a few are universal, and the vast majority are needs-based, which leaves out middle-class families who frequently can’t afford costly private pre-K options. 

There are free or lower cost preschool options available for some families, but advocacy is needed to make these programs available for all. If you live in an area without free pre-K, consider taking action and advocating for free or affordable options locally. Balthrop’s story exemplifies how it can be worthwhile to push for change and ensure more kids can experience the life-changing benefits of preschool.