Absent a nationwide plan for universal public prekindergarten, states and districts have taken various approaches to increasing access to school-based educational opportunities for their youngest learners. Though some of these programs have focused on making public prekindergarten available to all families, others have targeted families most in need by introducing means-tested programs. Early efforts to expand access to public schooling for preschool-age children, such as the War on Poverty–era federal Head Start program, focused on reaching low-income children. More recently, states and cities have made significant investments in their own public preschool programs, often citing their utility in combatting racial, ethnic, and income-based test score differences that are apparent at school entry.
A long-standing debate has weighed the relative merits of targeting limited resources to equalize early educational opportunities versus providing universal programs. But an underexplored distinction between the two approaches is how they might contribute to racial and ethnic school segregation among this country’s youngest students.
- Black and Hispanic prekindergarten students in means-tested programs experience consistently higher rates of racial isolation and lower rates of exposure to white students relative to their K–12 counterparts than those in open programs.
- In states with open-enrollment prekindergarten, the proportion of Black prekindergarten students enrolled in racially isolated schools is nearly identical to that of Black first-graders (roughly 46 percent), but in states where prekindergarten is means tested, the proportion of Black preschoolers in racially isolated schools is 6 percentage points higher than that of Black first-graders.
- Hispanic preschool students are 5 percentage points more likely than their first-grade counterparts to attend racially isolated schools in states with means-tested prekindergarten and are 3 percentage points less likely than first-grade students to do so in states where prekindergarten is open.
- In comparing states with diverse and robust prekindergarten programs, the data show that Black and Hispanic prekindergarten students in Texas and North Carolina, which have means-tested programs, have less exposure to white students than their counterparts in Georgia and Oklahoma, which have universal enrollment.
As long as significant disparities still exist in access to preschool programs by race and income, there remains a compelling policy imperative to prioritize providing high-quality public prekindergarten first to children with the least means to enroll in high-quality private options. But the data suggest that means-tested programs are one of many potential factors contributing to rates of racial and ethnic isolation in preschool environments that are even higher than largely segregated public elementary schools.
State policymakers should continue to work diligently to address the racial and ethnic segregation that exists in school-based preschool programs. Because school resources are correlated with a student’s race and socioeconomic status, the ongoing segregation reduces the likelihood of low-income students and students of color accessing equitable schooling resources such as funding, experienced teachers, school resources, and programmatic support. And the potential benefits of increasing school diversity go beyond improving access to resource. Studies show that learners who are educated in settings where different cultures and backgrounds are represented are more likely to stay engaged in schooling activities, develop a higher self-esteem and a sense of belonging, and show improved outcomes in participation and achievement.
More universal early childhood programming, with attention to countering the role of housing segregation outside schools and to practices facilitating positive interracial interactions within schools, could represent a major step toward an integrated public education system. Without careful designs to ensure that access to resources in targeted public programs meet or exceed what is offered in private alternatives, and without student assignment rules that maximize racial and ethnic diversity within the uniformly low-income means-tested program, efforts to target public prekindergarten resources to historically marginalized children may wind up reinforcing racial segregation.
Get the Data
- Universal and Targeted Approaches to Preschool Education in the United States
- Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Universal versus Targeted Pre-K Programs
- Segregated from the Start: Comparing Segregation in Early Childhood and K–12 Education
- The New American Elementary School? Prekindergarten in Public Schools and Implications for the Build Back Better Framework
- Segregation at an Early Age 2019 Update
- Neighborhood Preschool Enrollment Patterns by Race/Ethnicity
- Competition or Collaboration? Head Start Enrollment during the Rapid Expansion of State Prekindergarten
- Will Public Pre-K Really Close Achievement Gaps? Gaps in Prekindergarten Quality between Students and across States