President Obama Announces Pre-K Goal--But Is it Attainable?

Last week, President Obama took the stage at Northwestern University and announced a mission to improve the workforce with universal pre-K, saying, “By the end of this decade, let’s enroll 6 million children in high-quality preschool.” The line was buried in a speech rich with rhetoric on a whole range of policy areas, but the president was light on details. (For more reporting on the speech, check out Education Week’s Lillian Mongeau.) The details, though, are actually pretty important, because providing high-quality pre-K to 6 million children by 2020 will be no light lift.

There are about 8.1 million 3- and 4-year-olds in the U.S. As Education Week pointed out, 6 million enrolled in high-quality pre-K would mean about three in four of all children that age. To date, about half of kids that age are enrolled in pre-K, with about half of those children (one in four, total) enrolled in publicly funded pre-K and the remaining half enrolled in private pre-K programs. Assuming those rough estimates are correct--and there’s some evidence that they’re probably not quite accurate, given issues with the timing of Census surveys and questionable self-reporting by parents--it will be no small task to provide another 2 million children pre-K classrooms. And if the president is talking specifically about publicly funded pre-K (this was, after all, a policy speech given by the head of the federal government), the number of new classroom slots needed spikes to 4 million.

The sheer number of children isn’t the only challenge. Importantly, the president didn’t just call for more children to have access to pre-K: He specified that it should be high-quality pre-K.

The president didn’t specify in the speech exactly what he meant by that, but it’s safe to use his Preschool for All proposal as a jumping-off point. That proposal included requiring bachelor’s degrees for teachers; small classroom sizes and low staff-to-child ratios; professional development for teachers; evidence-based, developmentally appropriate curricula and alignment with state early learning standards; salaries comparable to K-12 teachers; comprehensive, onsite services; and a full-day program. (Get the details via Laura Bornfreund here.)

It’s hard to say how many children are enrolled in pre-K that would meet even most, if not all of those quality standards. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, of the 53 state-funded pre-K programs in 40 states plus Washington, D.C., most meet only a few of those requirements. All 53 are aligned with state early learning standards; but just 30 require bachelor’s degrees for teachers, and only 36 provide onsite screening and support services.

The question of whether states currently provide full-day programs might be the most complicated. According to NIEER, fewer than half of state-funded pre-K programs are full-day (11 are the length of a full school day, 1 is an extended day, and 18 are decided locally). According to the Census Bureau data, about half of public pre-K students and half of children enrolled in private pre-K are in full-day programs.  And as my colleague Alexander Holt wrote in Making the Hours Count: Exposing Disparities in Early Education by Retiring Half-Day vs. Full-Day Labels, even those simple distinctions between full-day and part-day programs can be misleading, as states’ definitions of a full-day pre-K program are very divergent. But for those children in half-day programs, extending the program to be a full day effectively means doubling the number of slots available at those programs, substantially increasing the costs of each child’s enrollment.

The president’s proposed Preschool for All plan would put a significant amount of money behind helping states expand access and improve the quality of their publicly funded pre-K programs. But with an intractable Congress--one that seems increasingly likely to be under Republican control in both chambers after the November midterm elections--more money probably isn’t in the cards anytime soon.

In New America’s recent Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education report, we call for more investment in pre-K, at both the federal and state levels. As we say, the federal government funds just 12 percent of K-12 education, and to ensure pre-K is part of a true PreK-12 continuum, early education for 3- and 4-year-olds should be funded the same way--largely by states and school districts. Of course, that would be a significant challenge for many states with less developed pre-K systems, but with some upfront federal investments to ease the financial burden, it could be an important approach.

There’s even evidence of considerable support for such federal investments. Public priorities have been shifting in recent years towards pre-K as a priority, with 64 percent of Americans in a recent poll saying it’s time for the federal government to do more to help ensure kindergarten readiness.  So the president’s lofty goal of expanding access to high-quality pre-K to 6 million children by the end of the decade is certainly on the right track. But doing it right is complicated work. And such a plan would be next to impossible to see through without legislative action--and new, bigger, and sustainable sources of funding.


Clare McCann is the deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America's Education Policy program. She previously served as a senior adviser on higher education policy at the U.S. Department of Education.