What is universal pre-k?
If you aren’t sure, you’re not alone. Although it’s widely in use in numerous other countries, only a few states in the United States offer it right now — and the short answer is that it’s publicly funded, high-quality preschool that is made available to all children, regardless of family income. Right now, many states have pre-k programs that are government-funded, but they’re based on income — and so universal pre-k would expand what’s now available.
Currently, only 41% of 4-year-old children and 16% of 3-year-olds are enrolled in some type of pre-K program that’s publicly funded. So, even when considering that not every child who qualifies is enrolled, the expansion would need to be significant to truly reach universal availability.
So, what are the benefits of this type of educational programming? The challenges?
Benefits of Quality Preschool
Healthline.com lists just some of the benefits of quality preschool that have been determined by research, referring to “regular” preschool, not specifically universal pre-k:
- Greater self-regulatory behavior
- Greater academic skills
- Increased vocabulary
- Socialization opportunities
In fact, children who attend preschools with well-trained teachers can still show academic benefits at the start of high school. So, how would universal pre-k expand upon that?
Benefits of Universal Pre-K
The foundational benefit is that more children could have access to quality pre-k education, something that’s not within the financial reach of many American families today.
Rasmussen University refers to research that says the average cost of a year of preschool for a 4-year-old child is $6,500, something beyond the ability of many families to afford. Universal pre-k would expand it to “children of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds [even] . . . those learning English as a second language.”
Making it available to all can help to close the quality gap because universal pre-k programs need to meet or exceed best practices, including standardizing teachers’ licensing requirements and professional development programs. Classrooms would almost certainly become more diverse, providing participants with opportunities to “gain new perspectives and appreciate their uniqueness while fostering empathy and inclusion along the way.” Plus, more parents can become involved in their children’s education even earlier with this programming.
Challenges of Universal Pre-K
The biggest challenge? Getting enough funding. The United States lags in early childhood education spending with a 2017 Education Week report noting how Norway and Sweden (using 2013 figures) spend nearly 2% of their gross domestic product on early childhood education programs while the United States was at 0.4%. When comparing the United States to the world average — 0.8% — the U.S. numbers still fall short.
Additional funding may be on the way since universal pre-k is part of the White House’s American Families Plan. If the plan is implemented, it will “provide universal, high-quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds.”
When enough funding exists for universal pre-k nationwide, enough support will need to be given to teachers to help prevent burnout while they maintain the necessary high standards.