January 31, 2023
Research has demonstrated the wide-ranging and positive benefits from high-quality publicly-funded prekindergarten education. Yet, access for families with young children remains uneven, with significant gaps across geography, income, race, and ethnicity. Over the last few decades, many states have worked to broaden access to prekindergarten education (pre-K), but only three states—Oklahoma, Florida, and Vermont—have implemented statewide universal pre-K programs. Prekindergarten education is an important component of the broader array of early childhood education (ECE) options that is intended to prepare children ages three to four years old (and some five-year-olds) for the transition into kindergarten. ECE more broadly includes the education of children from birth to eight years old, and provides children with activities and experiences meant to aid and enrich their development and growth, whether through a play-based approach or a more academic curriculum.
For the purposes of this research, a specific definition of universal when referring to universal pre-K programs (UPK) was used. Universal, here, means that the program is offered to families in the state regardless of income and has been implemented across all school districts. These UPK programs are offered to all families in the state on a voluntary basis, meaning that students are not required to enroll. The first state to establish a program that meets these criteria is Oklahoma, which created its universal pre-K program in 1998. A handful of other states offer support for pre-K education statewide, but individual districts may elect not to participate and therefore the program was not considered to be universal. Other states offer pre-K programming on a means-tested basis, meaning that families must meet income or other criteria to participate.
As referenced, just three states have established such UPK programs, but there is still a great deal of variance across these programs. These include half-day and full-day programs that are offered through either public and/or private schools depending on the state. UPK programs have specific classroom curriculum and staff training requirements, but these can vary substantially by state. This report considers the three case studies of state universal pre-K programs—Oklahoma, Florida, and Vermont. In doing so, it outlines the development, structure, and implementation of each state’s UPK program and analyzes the relative accessibility, quality, funding, and impacts of their programs. In analyzing these case studies, consideration is given to how findings can be instructive for other states as they seek to expand and improve pre-K policies and programs, in particular, for policymakers in New York State as they continue to work to expand access to pre-K and move the state towards more universal access.