May 11, 2023
Over the past decade, a number of cities and states—including such diverse places as San Antonio, Portland, New Mexico, Florida, and Colorado—have significantly expanded their public pre-K programs. But these investments might not always be reaching the children most likely to benefit. Due to a range of structural inequities, families of color and families with lower incomes are less likely to access universal pre-K programs than their White and higher-income peers. Even more concerning, within localities, these disparities are particularly large for some of the highest-quality pre-K programs.
Although many people have recognized this problem, we’re still figuring out what the solutions are. Research by our team at MDRC, University of Michigan, and Harvard, done in collaboration with the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Department of Early Childhood, and studies by others in places like New Jersey, Seattle, New York City, and New Orleans, offer four lessons for localities as they make investments in their public pre-K systems.
- Learn from existing pre-K application and enrollment data. Fixing a problem requires being able to measure it. Because Boston centrally tracks applications to its public school-based pre-K program, our research team has been able to examine access over time. In the program’s earlier days, the district had the capacity to serve about 60 percent of all children who ultimately enrolled in public kindergarten. Research focused on families who applied in 2008 and 2009 found that non-White children and those from families that qualified for free or reduced price lunch – notably the groups found to benefit the most from the program – were actually 27 percent and 11 percent less likely than their White and higher-income peers to even apply. In more recent research, examining applications from 2012-2018, we found significant racial and ethnic differences in who applied to and enrolled in the program; White students were consistently more likely than their Black, Hispanic, and Asian peers to enroll in any BPS pre-K program. Disparities in enrollment in the highest-quality programs were most stark; in 2018, White students were about five times more likely than Black and Hispanic students and 1.5 times more likely than Asian students to attend one of the highest-quality programs. Schools in the top quartile of third grade standardized test scores were defined as high-quality, based on complementary research demonstrating that positive impacts of the public pre-K program were sustained through third grade in those schools. Prioritizing this type of research can help localities identify how their investments are or are not achieving equity-centered goals – focused on ensuring that pre-K programs are just as, if not more, accessible to children from marginalized groups – and what to do about it. But it requires central management of applications, ideally across all settings in which public pre-K is offered, including public schools, community-based programs, and family child care homes.
- Invest in pre-K quality by meeting children where they are. In many systems, children from families with low incomes and children of color are more likely to enroll in pre-K programs in community-based settings than in public schools. Yet, community-based programs often have fewer resources than their public school counterparts. As a result, children in public school programs may have access to higher-quality learning opportunities and experience larger gains in their academic and cognitive skills during the pre-K year. An important step to improving equitable access to high-quality pre-K is attracting more community-based programs into public pre-K systems that serve children from marginalized groups, while also investing resources in teacher pay and instructional quality. In a recent study our University of Michigan and MDRC teams did with partners at NIEER, we examined five large pre-K systems and found that the two localities with the most consistent policies across public schools and community-based programs – New Jersey and Seattle – were most similar in quality across those settings and saw children in both contexts made about the same gains in skills across their four-year-old year. And New Jersey actually invests more per child in community-based programs than in public school programs. Meeting kids where they are can be a powerful strategy for improving equity and requires a commitment to raising the bar on quality in all settings. Increasing access without prioritizing quality is not real access.
- Talk to families to understand pre-K enrollment barriers. Families know best when it comes to the access barriers they face. Efforts to improve access may fare best by talking directly to families about the barriers they experience when navigating public pre-K systems. For example, MDRC conducted a study in New York City to understand families’ ranking of kindergarten programs. The researchers found that parents faced information gaps about program eligibility, choice overload with the ranking system, uncertainty about how to actually complete the application, and hassle factors like wait times, lost internet connections during the application process, and unsaved data in the online application.
- Implement and test interventions to promote more equitable access. Understanding barriers is only the first step. Localities also need to develop and test interventions that address the challenges families face. For example, a team of researchers worked closely with policymakers in New Orleans to understand why families experiencing poverty were not enrolling their children in Head Start. They found that a key bottleneck was parents not verifying their income eligibility for Head Start as a first step in the application process. The team designed simple text message reminders to directly target this issue and tested their approach via a rigorous randomized trial. Receiving the texts increased verification of income eligibility by about nine percentage points. In a different study, the researchers examined access to the broader public pre-K program and found that receiving personalized text messages also increased enrollment by about 10 percentage points, shifting it from 62 percent to 72 percent. Receiving a non-personalized, formulaic text, however, had no discernible impact. Innovative, carefully tested strategies for improving equitable access are needed in other contexts.
As more states and districts invest in high-quality pre-K as a way to promote more equitable learning outcomes, they will only achieve their intended goal if they ensure that these programs can be accessed by all families they are designed to serve. These lessons from pre-K systems leading the way across the country highlight strategies that policymakers can focus on to make this goal a reality.
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