The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 7, 2017

Knowing the state and local story: How targeted data can support children’s access to preschool

September 7, 2017

The preschool years—ages 3 to 5—are a crucial developmental time for children as they start acquiring the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in life. Policymakers and stakeholders focus on services for this age group to ensure children get the support they need to thrive. But how can these stakeholders know they are putting their time and resources into the right places?

Delving deeper than national data

To effectively reach these children and to ensure healthy development, it is essential to ask basic questions about them. How many preschool-age children are there? Where do they live? How many of them are enrolled in early education? What family characteristics—such as income, race or ethnicity, number of parents in the household, parental work status, and parental education—affect their access to early education and other supports? How many of them are children of immigrants, what languages do their families speak, and are their parents proficient in English?

National numbers can obscure what is happening within individual states and municipalities. For instance, although 60 percent of preschool-age children in the US are enrolled in either preschool or school, this rate can vary by nearly 30 percentage points across states.

Key insights at the state and local levels

Knowing specific state or community enrollment patterns and who makes up the nonenrolled is crucial to understanding challenges and determining what improvements are necessary.

Our new interactive data tool highlights how preschool enrollment varies geographically and presents 10 characteristics on preschool-age children by enrollment status, family income, and parental nativity. Key insights from the tool include the following:

  • Preschool enrollment varies across states within the same region. In the Southeast, 63 to 64 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled in preschool or school in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi compared with 54 to 55 percent in nearby Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
  • Preschool enrollment varies across metropolitan areas within the same state. In California, for example, 53 percent of preschool-age children are enrolled in preschool or school in the Riverside metropolitan area compared with 63 percent in nearby San Diego, 66 percent in neighboring Los Angeles, and 68 and 71 percent, respectively, in the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas.
  • The characteristics of nonenrolled 3- to 5-year-olds varies across states and localities.
    • Higher shares of nonenrolled preschool-age children have at least one parent with limited English proficiency in Texas (27 percent) than in nearby Arkansas (10 percent) or midwestern states like Ohio (6 percent). These children could benefit significantly from high-quality preschool programs but likely need different outreach strategies to improve enrollment patterns.
    • Similarly, nonenrolled 3- to 5-year-olds in the Baltimore and Philadelphia metropolitan areas are more likely to have only one parent living with them in the household (36 to 37 percent) than in the Washington, DC, area (29 percent), which may signal different needs and demand for before- and after-school care.

The insights that come from this tool can bring together communities to work on behalf of preschool children. Similar research in the Silicon Valley area revealed that low-income children were less likely to be enrolled in preschool than others and that 75 percent of low-income children in that community were children of immigrants. This sparked a conversation among local organizations, community leaders, and other stakeholders about how to use information on the characteristics of nonenrolled children to better target outreach efforts.

Understanding the characteristics and enrollment patterns of preschool-age children in a state or community is key for policymakers looking to better serve this group.

Photo via Shutterstock.


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