The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 11, 2018

Expanding state and local preschool programs to support immigrant families

Recent immigration policy changes and intensified enforcement efforts are taking a toll on immigrant families. Growing evidence documents fear and stress among children of immigrants along with the rapid disconnection of families from public benefits that could provide material and health support. Proposed changes to “public charge” rules are likely to exacerbate this trend.

Public preschool programs are one way state and local governments can support immigrant children and families. We estimate that opening preschool to all children who speak languages other than English at home would lead to 3,200 new low-income preschoolers (from those already eligible) and up to 92,000 additional enrollees (from those newly eligible).

Because preschool programs often include social workers, family support staff, free meals, and links to other social service agencies, preschool expansion can benefit students’ immediate and extended families, in addition to providing children a strong start in school.

How can state and local preschool programs expand access for immigrant families?

States where public preschool is targeted to low-income children and those otherwise deemed “at risk” can expand preschool access by broadening eligibility criteria to include home language.

Currently, 27 states take a targeted approach. Of those, 16 states—Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington—consider children at risk if they demonstrate limited proficiency in English and facility with another language or if their parents speak a foreign language at home.

This approach can remove barriers related to proving income, encouraging higher participation. Although several of the 11 remaining targeted preschool states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, and Oregon—have large shares of children of immigrants, they do not use this additional lever of eligibility based on home language.

How would home language eligibility change preschool enrollment in those 11 states?

Using national enrollment data, we estimated the number of additional income-eligible children of immigrants who might enroll in preschool if their states adopted home language policies. We assumed these policies would increase the rates of preschool enrollment in the 11 states without home language targeting up to the rates of enrollment in the 16 states with this targeting approach.

In all, 3,200 additional low-income children of immigrants might enroll in preschool under new home language eligibility policies. Although this is a small gain, these children are already eligible to attend.

Plus, benefits to enrollment may extend beyond preschool students to their immediate and extended families via preschool-based social supports and referrals to other services.

Next, we estimated the number of income-ineligible children of immigrants who would have access to public preschool if these 11 states included home language eligibility. We found that 92,400 additional children of immigrants would be eligible for preschool.

Many of these children come from families that earn just over the income requirement, meaning they have needs and resources similar to children who qualify under current rules. It is difficult to estimate how many of these children would enroll in public preschool if they could, but gains in access could be substantial.

While these numbers are modest, there are other policies that might offer stronger encouragement for enrollment and could be implemented in all states with public preschool programs. These policies entail incremental expansion of access by

  • increasing the number of funded seats, especially those in immigrant communities;
  • improving outreach, focusing on translation, culturally relevant messaging, and developing and sustaining trust among immigrant communities;
  • streamlining application and registration processes, keeping in mind language and literacy barriers; and
  • enhancing professional development for teachers and administrators around cultural and linguistic inclusion.

These strategies can expand enrollment in programs that prepare children for school and link families to the intensive health, mental health, and material supports many immigrant communities need.

What would it take to expand preschool access for children of immigrants?

Serving more children of immigrants requires political will and additional funding. Establishing home language eligibility may involve legislative change or new guidance, depending on state and local preschool policies.

Administrators may also need to make implementation decisions about how to assess home language and staff application and registration periods so that families can prove eligibility with minimal administrative barriers.

These changes will take time and resources to get right, but leaders can look to the 16 states with home language eligibility for effective approaches.

Today, one in four young children is the child of an immigrant parent, and 95 percent of these children are US citizens. Children of immigrants are a critical part of America’s future, and yet they and their families are facing new challenges that threaten their well-being and our national prosperity.

Expanding access to high-quality public preschool programs can help address these challenges. It is working in many communities in the US and beyond. State and local policymakers around the country would be wise to follow their lead.

Pre-school students Molly Kiniry, 4, left, and Imani Workcuff, 4, play with play dough at the Refugee and Immigrant Family Center in Seattle, WA on April 5, 2012. Photo by Ted S. Warren/AP.

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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.