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What You Need to Know About Universal Pre-K

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16th December 2021

If you’re a childcare provider, parent, or teacher, chances are that you’ve come across the buzzword “universal pre-k.” This term has been creating hype in the early childhood education scene, and a national discussion about it is quickly gathering steam. As a stakeholder interested in the ECE scene, you probably have several questions about universal pre-k programs. What is universal pre-k? What are its benefits? Which states have universal pre-k?

The learning journey of a child is highly determined by their early childhood education. It’s their learning foundation, without which they have a hard time catching up with the rest. In this article, we’ll tackle everything you need to know about universal pre-k, including why it matters and the states that offer it.

Benefits of Universal Pre-K

Before we highlight why universal pre-k is important, we’ll first look into what exactly it entails.

What is Universal Pre-K?

When it comes to early childhood education and childcare programs, there are three astronomical challenges associated with the current system;

  • Rocky transition for children joining kindergarten.
  • Impoverished caregivers.
  • High cost of childcare.

Universal pre-k is one of the most effective ways to address these issues. This preschool program is funded by the state government and aims to ensure all eligible children can access high-quality preschool programs irrespective of how much their parents earn. Think of it as an expansion of what’s currently in place, although, in most states, the government-funded pre-k programs are usually based on the family’s income.

The implementation of universal pre-k means that all children will have to start their education on a level playing field. You should, however, note that this publicly funded preschool program will be slightly challenging to implement. Keep in mind even though universal pre-k is available in most countries, it’s only offered by a handful of states in the U.S. Its implementation means significant changes in the U.S. early childhood sector, and as is with most major changes, there are pros and cons.

Why is Universal Pre-K Important?

There will be some financial and logistical challenges of implementing universal pre-k, but the benefits tip the scales in its favor. The importance of this early childhood education program greatly outweighs the negatives, and here are the top reasons why universal pre-k matters.

Gives Children Access to High-Quality Education

One of the main reasons why high-quality pre-kindergarten is inaccessible to many families is its high price tag. In fact, according to the Care Index, putting a 4-year-old in an Illinois pre-k center costs, on average, $10,414. This translates to about 19% of the state’s median household income and more than 60% of the single parent income for those working for minimum wage! It’s no wonder most children don’t attend ECE. Based on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, affordable childcare shouldn’t exceed 10% of the entire family’s income.

Since universal pre-k programs are state government-funded, they will save low-income families thousands of dollars, thereby improving their economic status and making ECE accessible to their children. Most children are brought up in households where both parents have to work, so outside care is often a necessity. This then places a burden on the parents who have to pay for childcare for the hours they are at work.

Universal pre-k eases this burden and ensures children from all socio-economic backgrounds can access high-quality education. This is especially beneficial to children from low-income households or those that are learning English as a second language.

Enhances Diversity in Classrooms

There are 2 elements of diversity in early childhood programs; closing the achievement gaps between children of color and white children, and encouraging more inclusive perspectives in classrooms. While the current ECE programs are of high quality, they are less inclusive as they lock out children from low-income families that can’t afford to pay for them.

Since universal pre-k programs are free, it means that more children will access high-quality education irrespective of their economic background. This will make learning environments more diverse, allowing children to appreciate their uniqueness and gain new perspectives. The ultimate result is a pre-k program that fosters inclusivity and empathy.

According to the National Association of the Education for Young Children (NAEYC), the inequitable opportunities that are given to certain families, communities, and children are the cause of the achievement gaps among children. This association further states that the nation should champion equal learning opportunities. Universal pre-k will be a critical tool in achieving this.

Helps to Close the Quality Gaps in ECE

The benefits of quality ECE are undisputed. However, there has been an evident quality gap in most programs, and this has been a problem for years. For instance, children that are brought up in poverty face several disadvantages that hamper their development. In fact, there’s a clear early vocabulary development difference between children from poor families and their peers from high-income backgrounds, that’s evident from as early as 18 months.

Currently, the ECE regulations in most states are different, and some of them don’t even meet the industry standards for high-quality pre-k programs. The quality gap is especially significant between private pre-schools and other programs that rarely receive directions when it comes to the best educational practices.

By implementing universal pre-k programs, states will have an opportunity to standardize various regulations, including teachers’ professional development programs and licensing requirements. For instance, the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) is one of the industry standards for helping childcare providers achieve accreditation. Once universal pre-k is implemented, most ECE centers will be able to implement these gold standards on a wider scale.

Makes Parents More Involved in Their Child’s Education

The truth is that with the current ECE programs, most parents view pre-k as a daycare rather than an education program. Most of the time, they associate these programs with activities such as finger painting, blowing bubbles, lots of play, etc. While these activities are still a critical element of ECE, there’s more to the programs than the children having fun all day until their parents pick them up at the end of their shift.

Universal pre-k will help the parents view this program as a critical stepping stone to their children being ready for kindergarten. This will then prompt them to become more involved in their children’s education and learning goals than they previously would have. The end results will be a system where parents give their children a social and academic boost to reinforce the skills that are developed in ECE programs. The benefits of this kind of parent involvement could be massive!

States With Universal Pre-K

When it comes to access to public pre-k education, the U.S. is falling behind compared to other countries. In fact, in 2018, only 16% of 3-year-olds and 44% of 4-year-olds accessed publicly funded pre-k programs, including those funded by the federal and state governments. When the study was expanded to include data from private pre-primary programs, the statistics shot up to 40% of 3-year-olds and 68% of 4-year-olds.

Currently, some of the states with universal pre-k include;


Vermont has a universal pre-k act that gives 3,4, and 5-year-old kids access to free publicly funded programs. This program was signed into law in 2014, and since then, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of children that access early learning. Vermont uses a mixture of delivery methods, including family child care providers, private providers, and public school programs.


This state was one of the first to offer free pre-k programs to 4-year-olds irrespective of their economic background. Their program is referred to as VPK or Voluntary Prekindergarten Education and is mainly aimed at preparing the children for kindergarten and beyond. This program was so successful that in the 2019-2020 years, over 70% of 4-year-olds in the state attended VPK.

Washington, DC

The District of Columbia has a full-day pre-school program that is mostly aimed at helping young, low-income families in the state. This program has resulted in many parents, specifically mothers who were at home taking care of their children, rejoining the workforce.

Cities With Universal Pre-K

In 2019, CityHealth and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) collaborated to analyze how accessible pre-k programs were in various cities. The main benchmarks for this study were health screening and referral, teacher education level, curriculum supports, and teacher-to-child ratio.

The award system for this study was as follows;

  • Cities that had at least 30% of eligible 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-k programs but didn’t qualify for 8 of the 10 benchmarks received a bronze medal.
  • Those that met 8 of the 10 benchmarks but had low accessibility rates received a silver medal.
  • Cities that have high rates of access, as well as high-quality programs, got the gold medal.

There were only five cities that got the gold medal; New York City, Charlotte, San Antonio, Nashville, and Boston.

Keep an Eye on Universal Pre-K Developments

There’s no doubt that universal pre-k programs will revolutionize the education sector in the country. They will give more children access to high-quality education programs, help bridge the quality gaps, enhance classroom diversity and encourage parents to get more involved in their children’s education. Currently, some states have implemented these programs, but it’s expected that more will join soon.

If you believe that high-quality early childhood education should be accessible to everyone, then we agree with you! We advocate for national availability and are committed to helping parents find the best program for their children. Check out our database to find the right pre-k program in your area!