The blog of the Urban Institute
March 5, 2021

Better Data Use Shows the Depths of the Pandemic Prekindergarten Crisis

March 5, 2021

Last month, I explained how equitable school reopening means reversing major declines in public school enrollment, especially in kindergarten, and using data on prepandemic trends to focus reopening efforts. Enrollment declines in kindergarten stand out. But declines in prekindergarten—and disparities by race and ethnicity—are far more striking. And they are critical.

Public prekindergarten prepares the nation’s youngest learners for success in kindergarten (PDF), with the greatest benefits going to students from families with low incomes and dual-language learners. Prekindergarten can also set children on a path to better outcomes through middle school and beyond. Without targeted support, this lost year of school could hold back a generation.

Plummeting prekindergarten enrollment during the pandemic

Public prekindergarten enrollment has increased steadily in recent years. Just before the pandemic, programs in 44 states and the District of Columbia enrolled (PDF) more than 1.6 million students, nearly three times the number of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled (PDF) in 2002. But in fall 2020, prekindergarten expansion reversed course.

Florida, a state ranked fourth nationwide for its high share of 4-year-olds enrolled, provides a helpful example. Although the state’s leadership has shown unusually strong support for reopening despite opposition from public health officials and teachers’ unions, prekindergarten enrollment declined for all racial and ethnic groups.

Line chart showing Florida's prekindergarten enrollment plummeted during the pandemic

As in the earlier analysis of kindergarten data, the critical question is this: what would prekindergarten enrollment have been absent the pandemic? Enrollment counts from 2019, while instructive, do not tell the whole story. In fact, they tell less of the story for prekindergarten than they do for kindergarten because of prekindergarten’s rapid expansion in Florida—which began in 2005 and served 75 percent of 4-year-olds by 2019—and around the country. 

Adjusting for prepandemic trends changes the size of enrollment declines for nearly all groups. Adjustments show that declines were less severe for groups with flat or declining enrollment before the pandemic (especially Pacific Islander students in Florida) but more severe for many more groups with growing enrollment (especially American Indian students, students with an identified disability, and Hispanic students).

Across Florida, adjustments show that prekindergarten enrollment declined by 34 percent, more than three times the decline in kindergarten. Adjusted drops range from 27 percent (for American Indian students) to 38 percent (for English language learners). Declines were larger for students who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, or two or more races than for white students, likely because of concern grounded in a history of unequal school resources and ongoing racial inequities during the pandemic (in addition to concern (PDF) for young children’s education). The pandemic prekindergarten crisis is an equity issue.

Dot chart showing declines in prekindergarten enrollment adjusted for prepandemic trends

How data can drive an equitable return to prekindergarten

Prekindergarten is the first step in a child’s educational journey and a critical investment in addressing educational inequity. Reopening may start by transitioning students from virtual to in-person learning. But an equitable approach requires engaging children and families who did not enroll this fall.

To pursue an equitable return to prekindergarten, the Biden-Harris administration can support state and school district administrators by doing the following:

  • Ensuring state and local education agencies have sufficient research capacity to accurately estimate enrollment declines. Additional prepandemic years of data and more sophisticated modeling, including use of federal enrollment projections (PDF), can help identify new enrollment targets and design recovery efforts with them in mind.
  • Encouraging spring prekindergarten enrollment with Title I and other discretionary education funding proposed in the American Rescue Plan. Resources can support culturally and linguistically responsive outreach to families along with additional teaching staff to address students’ developmental needs. As new evidence from Virginia shows, any in-person instruction can better mitigate enrollment declines than remote-only instruction.
  • Fully implementing new priorities to vaccinate teachers and child care staff. Many states deliver prekindergarten through a mixed delivery system of public schools and child care centers. Child care staff, many of whom have been working throughout the pandemic and had not been included in state priority groups, need equitable access to vaccines so that prekindergarten can reopen safely. The administration’s goal of at least one shot for all educators in March is a key step toward realizing that goal.
  • Taking a continuous improvement approach. Regardless of whether classrooms reopen in the administration’s first 100 days, later in the spring, or this summer, consistent enrollment tracking—disaggregated by student subgroup and adjusted for prepandemic enrollment trends—can ensure an equitable return to prekindergarten. Tracking can also help kindergarten teachers plan for next year as they face larger classes of students with varied educational experiences during the pandemic.

With sufficient resources and a sustained focus on equity, state and school district administrators can address the pandemic prekindergarten crisis. The stakes for young learners, and our collective future, could not be higher.

(d3sign / Getty Images)

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