Across the country, the interest in universal preschool is growing. It has become a policy priority nationally and for many state leaders. What can policy makers learn from states and localities that have already broken ground in experimenting with universal pre-kindergarten (UPK)?
Currently, “three states—Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont—and Washington, D.C. offer universal pre-K while another nine states have universal pre-K policies that are open to all families regardless of income and serve a significant portion of 4-year-olds.” These existing ventures into UPK offer valuable insight into UPK implementation as other states and localities across the nation begin to create their own plans for rolling out state-sponsored universal preschool.
Research on places with existing UPK programs shows that it is very beneficial. Quality preschool programs have been shown to “advance children’s development and improve their long-term social, academic, and economic trajectories.” This happens largely because of high-quality preschool programs’ emphases on what are called ‘noncognitive skills,’ such as “following routines, building knowledge over a period of time, [and] collaborating with peers,” which can lay the groundwork for lifelong self-confidence and self-motivation. This is a net positive for our future societal health, not to mention the economic benefit that UPK provides society by taking care of children so that parents can work.
The benefits, however, are contingent on the quality and accessibility of the programs. This is why it matters not just that a state has UPK, but also that it is implemented effectively. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) annual preschool yearbook, Washington, D.C. has one of the best UPK systems in the country.
What makes it so good?
Accessibility. Washington, D.C. has a far higher percentage of four-year olds enrolled in state-funded pre-k than anywhere else in the country, with 84% of four-year-olds enrolled in 2021, versus the next-highest state, Oklahoma, which has 64% of four-year-olds enrolled. For context, the national average is 29%. This level of accessibility requires significant public investment in the UPK system, with D.C. spending $19,228 per child on UPK in 2021, versus the national average of $7,011 per child.
Continuous quality improvement. Early childhood leaders in D.C. use the most up-to-date standards to guide the quality of their state-funded programs based on research by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, among others. They ensure that these standards are met through the employment of over 400 early education coaches, who work one-on-one with early childhood educators. This systematic approach to pre-k quality maintenance is key to D.C.’s ability to maintain their robust UPK system.
Workforce sustainability. Most of the significant funds that D.C. invests in its early childhood system go to teacher salaries. Preschool teachers in D.C. are paid, on average, $45,890 per year, while the national average is $36,550, as of 2020. Paying teachers a living wage can help to prevent burnout in the workforce, retain high quality teachers, and encourage young people to enter the field.
Washington D.C.’s experience shows that a high-functioning UPK system is achievable with strong investments, continuous quality improvement, and a commitment to a well-paid workforce. As other states begin to launch, or think about, their own universal pre-k programs, DC’s example highlights some of the key factors that can lead to long-term success.
Cole is a research coordinator at ECE Insights. He specializes in writing and organizational analysis, learned from his experience as a recent graduate of the undergraduate history program at Willamette University, in Salem, Oregon. He is currently based in Portland, Oregon.