In 1965 the federal government piloted an innovative, eight-week summer learning program called Head Start, which aimed to help children from low-income families successfully transition to elementary school.

It now serves more than 1 million children and families annually across the entire school year through the Early Head Start program for children from birth to age 3; the Head Start preschool program for 4- and 5- year-olds; and programs for children of migrant workers and American Indian/Alaskan Native children.

The push for universal pre-K has recently gained traction among federal policymakers to make pre-K available, beginning at age 4, to every child in the country!

Unfortunately, just under half of the country’s 3 and 4-year-olds were enrolled in 2019.

Phi Delta Kappa’s most recent journal reported that significant disparities in knowledge and skills often emerge in early childhood, and by the time kindergarten begins, children from low-income backgrounds tend to have already fallen behind their more affluent peers in key academic areas.

Evidence shows that children who attend pre-K and other early childhood programs have higher pre-academic skills at kindergarten entry than those who do not attend, and the academic, social, and personal benefits can last long into adolescence and adulthood.

While attending preschool may not always lead to higher test scores later in elementary school, researchers have identified other benefits that do appear to last. For instance, participating students are significantly less likely to be placed in special education in subsequent years.

Children who attend pre-K programs score higher on cognitive measures in adolescence, have fewer special education placements, are less often held back a grade, are more likely to complete high school and attend college, are less likely to have criminal records, and have higher rates of adult employment.

Also, when teachers in the early elementary grades received high-quality professional support, students were more likely to continue the momentum they gained in pre-K. “Fade-out”— advantages that fade within the first few years of school—was less pronounced among children in schools where the curriculum was tightly aligned across the early grades. This has prompted some school systems to create stronger connections between pre-K and elementary school.

There are considerable variations in the characteristics of public pre-K programs across the country. Some offer only half-day programs, while others provide full-day options.

Some programs use curricula that independent researchers have found to be of high quality, while others use curricula that have been created in-house or that lack a solid evidence base. Some programs require teachers to have degrees in early childhood education, and others do not.

As is true of K-12 education, much of the decision-making about designing, funding, and implementing public pre-K programs is left to state and local policymakers. Therefore, a substantial federal investment will be required to expand access to these programs to all 4-year-olds in the country.

For these reasons, investing in universal public pre-K should be an urgent policy priority.

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