Background & Analysis

The Federal Education Budget Project’s background and analysis pages provide detailed information on federal PreK-12 and higher education programs and spending.

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Pre-Kindergarten and the Limitations of Pre-K Data

To understand pre-K funding 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

Public funding for pre-K programs comes primarily from three sources: states; special education funds for pre-K (funded by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Part B, Sec. 619); and Head Start, the federal pre-K program for children in poverty.

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 No Child Left Behind 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. Read more in No Child Left Behind - Overview...

Blended funded 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. Read more about Head Start and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act - Funding Distribution...

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Congressional Justifications, Fiscal Years 2002-2015

Source: U.S. Department of Education Budget Tables

The role of states

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. By 2010, 40 states provided some form of funding for pre-K programs. In 2011, that number dropped to 39 as Arizona zeroed out its Early Childhood Block Grant pre-K program. The other states that do not fund any state pre-K programs are Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Research from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has shown that more children are enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs than in any other publicly-funded pre-K program: 28 percent of 4-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs; 11 percent in Head Start; 3 percent in other public pre-K programs; and 3 percent in special education, not including special education children who are also enrolled in state-funded pre-K or Head Start.

Source: National Institute for Early Education Research2

State funding for pre-K in 2012 averaged $3,841 per child, down from $4,284 in 2011, according to NIEER’s 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook. Per-child funding varies widely among the states that provide programs, from more than $11,000 per child in the court-ordered Abbott program in New Jersey to less than $2,000 per child in Colorado, Nebraska and South Carolina.

Most state-funded pre-K programs are designed to provide grants to community-based organizations (CBOs) in addition to, or instead of, school districts. (An example of a CBO is a non-profit organization that runs child care programs in a neighborhood, city, county, or region.) For example, Michigan’s Great Start School Readiness Program funds pre-K classrooms in many of the state’s school districts. However, it also provides grants directly to 61 community-based providers who won the funds through a competitive process. Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program distributes all funds directly to county-level early learning coalitions, each of which distributes subgrants to providers in their area. Read more about Pre-Kindergarten and the Limitations of Pre-K Data.

Eleven state pre-K programs, such as the Virginia Preschool Initiative and Iowa’s Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program, require local governments or providers to provide matching funding, which can amount to a significant portion of annual funding for those programs.

For more information on state-funded pre-K, see NIEER’s annual State of Preschool yearbooks.

Other early childhood programs

Child care programs that receive public subsidies

Many American families enroll their preschool-aged children in publicly funded child care centers or child care homes. Some of these programs may, in practice, be considered pre-K programs1 but are not required by state or federal law to meet pre-K standards. Child care programs receiving public funds may be supported by vouchers provided to low-income families or through state subsidies to providers serving at-risk children. To assist these families, states often use funds from federal programs, including the Child Care and Development Fund (which includes the Child Care and Development Block Grant [CCDBG]), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Social Services Block Grant. In many cases, the emphasis in these federal grant programs is on children’s health and safety, but some programs are evolving to focus on children’s cognitive and social development as well.

Many states are now developing monitoring systems called Quality Rating Improvement Systems (QRIS) that could enable parents and policymakers to determine which child care programs that receive public subsidies are providing high-quality educational experiences for children. These systems could be used to determine whether such programs should continue to receive public funds.

Privately funded programs

Because child care subsidies, Head Start, and many state-funded pre-K programs are open only to families with low incomes, many working families above the income-eligibility threshold must turn to private, tuition-based pre-K programs and child care centers for the care and early education and development of their children under the age of 5. These may be church-run preschools, parent-run preschools, preschools managed by non-profit organizations or for-profit child care centers, or preschool programs administered to small groups of children in homes. While it is likely that a significant portion of young children attend these types of programs, no system exists to track enrollments in privately funded programs.

  1. 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.
  2. 2 State preschool spending is defined by NIEER as state funding for a state's pre-K program plus funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), which some states use to support state-funded pre-K programs.
Published Apr 25 2014 19:39