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.[1] 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.


  1. 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.

Head Start

The federal Head Start program is a comprehensive early learning program for preschool-aged children of families in poverty, designed to meet children’s emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs.


Early Head Start

In 1995, Congress approved an extension of Head Start known as Early Head Start, which is designed to serve impoverished mothers and their children from birth to age 3.

State Funded Pre-K

States have played a large role in supporting pre-K since Georgia established the first universal, state-funded pre-K program in the country in 1995, providing preschool education for 44,000 4-year-old children in that first year.

Other Early Childhood Programs

Many American families enroll their preschool-aged children in publicly funded child care centers or child care homes. Others also turn to private, tuition-based pre-K programs and child care centers.