The New American Elementary School? Prekindergarten in Public Schools and Implications for the Build Back Better Framework

Brief

The New American Elementary School? Prekindergarten in Public Schools and Implications for the Build Back Better Framework

November 5, 2021

Abstract

A central feature of President Biden’s Build Back Better framework is a proposal to ensure that every child in the United States, if their family chooses to, can attend a public prekindergarten program starting at age 3. A look at the current state of prekindergarten shows that 80 percent of state-funded prekindergarten enrollees attended prekindergarten in a public elementary school building, and school-based prekindergarten programs tend to be located in schools that are less economically advantaged and serve higher proportions of students of color than the national average.

Key Numbers

Data from the 2019–20 academic year show the following:

  • About 1.36 million students were enrolled in prekindergarten, equal to 37 percent of kindergarten enrollment.
  • Fifty-seven percent of public elementary schools have a prekindergarten grade.
  • Eighty-one percent of elementary schools with prekindergarten programs are Title I schools, compared with 76 percent of elementary schools without prekindergarten programs.
  • The racial and ethnic composition of school-based prekindergarten attendees is generally consistent with that of kindergarten students. The prekindergarten student population is 4 percentage points more Black and 3 percentage points less white than the kindergarten student population.
  • School-based prekindergarten programs are 10 percent less segregated than prekindergarten programs overall, but school-based prekindergarten programs are still 3 percent more segregated than kindergarten programs.

Implications

The share of public elementary schools that have a prekindergarten grade has risen steadily over time. With a large influx of new students into the educational system expected through the proposed Build Back Better framework, states and districts might consider expanding prekindergarten-only and P–3 schools in addition to siting prekindergarten into more traditional elementary school structures. But the experiences of children in prekindergarten and their subsequent educational experiences can vary based on whether they attend prekindergarten in an elementary school or in a stand-alone center.

The potential benefits to school-based programs include greater access to educational resources, potential for better alignment with early grades and consistency in educational experiences, and teachers with higher educational credentials. But potential drawbacks include lack of full-day care, including wraparound services; pressure to overstructure prekindergarten; and a lack of appropriate facilities for 3- and 4-year-olds on elementary school campuses.

The Build Back Better framework could expand access to families interested in enrolling their children in prekindergarten. Policymakers and program administrators should continue to study the data to work toward ensuring more children and families have access to an equitable early childhood education system.

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