The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 1, 2014

A portrait of universal pre-kindergarten in DC

May 1, 2014

DC’s universal pre-K program—the only one in the region—sets the city apart for its investment in equal access to early childhood education. By offering pre-K to all three- and four-year-olds, regardless of family income, the District may have given parents another reason to stay in the city, rather than move to the suburbs, when their kids reach school age. Are families taking advantage of expanded pre-K? And if so, who’s enrolling and where are the open pre-K slots? Let’s take a closer look at the data to answer those questions.

Are children enrolling in pre-K?

Rigorous studies confirm that high-quality early childhood education can have long-term benefits for children and society. However, high-quality private programs can often cost more than $10,000 a year, putting them out of reach for many families. Without public pre-K programs, some children start kindergarten less prepared than their peers—and that early setback can have long-term effects.

DC began offering universal pre-K in 2008. Enrollment numbers show that many families, irrespective of income, are indeed taking the city up on this offer. Even as the number of pre-K-age children living in DC remained relatively stable over the past decade, three- and four-year-olds attending pre-K substantially increased.

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Charter schools captured most of the growth, with enrollment of three-year-old pre-K students increasing from just 51 in 2001 to almost 3,000 in 2013. Enrollment of four-year-old students increased almost tenfold. In DC Public Schools (DCPS), the number of three-year-old pre-K students doubled from 1,074 to 2,197, while the number of four-year-old students went up from 3,023 to 3,368, an 11 percent increase.

Who is enrolling?

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In DC, expanded pre-K significantly improved access to early childhood education for black students. Pre-K enrollment of black students more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, jumping from 3,300 to more than 7,800. White and Hispanic student enrollment increased only modestly.

Where are open pre-K slots in DC?

Despite better access to pre-K, openings are unevenly distributed throughout the city. Fewer slots opened up in the more affluent neighborhoods of Northwest DC than in other areas. The city guarantees access to pre-K for four-year-olds, but not necessarily in the child’s neighborhood, meaning that slots aren’t always available nearby. 

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DC government has prioritized expanding access to high-quality pre-K. Enrollment trends over the past decade suggest that these programs are in increasingly high demand. But will universal pre-K actually boost educational outcomes? Will it influence the school and housing choices of families with young children? These questions remain unanswered. For now, however, DC is making steady progress helping more kids build a strong foundation for their education.

Interested in learning more about how education in DC has evolved? Explore the schools chapter of Our Changing City, an interactive web feature that uses data to tell the story of change in the District of Columbia.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.