A significant, albeit still insufficient, expansion of access to publicly supported early education programs for children ages 3 to 5 has occurred over the last decade. This trend bodes well for children at risk of academic failure, but is endangered by uneven, halting, and at times inadequate attention to program quality in grades prekindergarten through three.
Expanded access to pre-kindergarten in recent years is primarily the result of individual state legislative, state agency, state executive, and state referendum efforts. States have pursued these efforts at different times, unequal rates, and with no coordinating effort from the federal government. (Much of the existing coordination has come from private foundations, such as The Pew Charitable Trusts, Joyce Foundation, and David and Lucille Packard Foundation and national non-profit organizations, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).) The result of this state-by-state approach to program development is an uneven and inequitable national structure. Programs operate with vastly different quality and access levels, and, within states, can be isolated from system wide standards-based school reform. As a result, expanded access to pre-kindergarten is in danger of not fully realizing its substantial potential to help close academic achievement gaps between at-risk children and their nondisadvantaged peers. In fact, in some circumstances, expanded pre-kindergarten programs that are of suboptimal quality could fail of their own weight.
To expand access to pre-kindergarten, heighten early education program quality, and equalize child opportunities, New America recommends a series of changes to existing federal grant programs, including a reformed No Child Left Behind Title V, Part A block grant program that rewards and promotes state early education expanded access and quality efforts. Further recommended is dedicated No Child Left Behind Act Title I program funding and increased spending flexibility. The foundations for expanded access to high quality pre-kindergarten programs may be realized through recommended changes at negligible additional taxpayer cost. However, a high-quality, voluntary access pre-kindergarten system is ultimately an expensive proposition. The impact of recommended changes would be heightened if additional federal resources were made available, including through an expansion of existing programs, such as Head Start.
For the complete report, please see the attached PDF version.