To understand pre-K in the United States, it helps to recognize that pre-K programs—sometimes called “preschool” or “junior kindergarten”—come in all shapes and sizes. Variations exist across localities, across states, and throughout the country in how programs are funded, which education standards they must meet, how many hours and days of the week children can attend, which families are eligible to enroll their children, and the age at which children can be enrolled. In most cases, these are programs for children at age 4, but some programs also fund children at age 3.
Public funding for pre-K programs comes primarily from three sources: states, federal special education funds for pre-K, and Head Start. Some pre-K programs also receive funds from the federal Child Care and Development Fund and other federal social-services funds that provide block grants to states, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (the federal welfare program), or local governments. Another potential source of funding is from the U.S. Department of Education under Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which permits school districts to use federal Title I funding to pay for pre-K. Data are unavailable on how many districts do so. In the 2010-2011 school year, 2.5 percent of children attending Title I-funded education programs were labeled as “pre-K students,” according to U.S. Department of Education officials.
Blended funding streams for pre-K are common as many programs rely on multiple sources of state, local, and federal funding. This variation in funding makes it difficult to determine precisely how much public money is spent on—and how many children are enrolled in—all publicly funded pre-K programs in the United States. It is possible, however, to track funding and enrollment at the federal level. Data from federal budget documents, for example, show that over the past several years, federal funding for Head Start and IDEA preschool grants has increased. In 2014, 8313,313 children were enrolled in Head Start (not including the Early Head Start program designed for infants and toddlers) and 749,971 children aged three through five received IDEA preschool services.
The Federal Education Budget Project defines pre-K as a program that employs trained teachers to lead daily educational experiences in a classroom or learning center for children who are a year or two away from kindergarten.