At the Starting Line

Early Childhood Education Programs in the 50 States

High-quality early childhood education programs provide young children with experiences that promote healthy cognitive and social development and the basis for thriving in school. Families with economic resources often purchase such education for their children—usually in the form of high-quality preschool or daycare programs.

But for many families, including many middle-class families, the high-quality preschool or daycare they desire is unaffordable or unavailable without state subsidy or state efforts to assure quality. For low-income children, such education is typically only available through Head Start (which serves an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the nation's poor 3- and 4-year-olds) or through state-funded programs that subsidize the otherwise high cost of quality early education.

The AFT completed a 50-state study that reports on key elements of state policies designed to ensure that all children, and especially those most at risk, have full access to high-quality early education. In examining the policies of state programs, we limited our analysis to early childhood programs that (1) had school-readiness or early childhood education as a goal; (2) were provided statewide; (3) were supported with state funds; and (4) served 3- and/or 4-year-olds. For the purposes of this benchmark AFT report, we included states that provide supplementary funds to Head Start because this program fits the above criteria, but we did not include any preschool programs that do not receive state funds.

*  *  *

Over the past 20 years, states have made strides in terms of their attention to and provision of early childhood education. Two decades ago, only about 10 states provided early childhood education programs; today, 46 states and the District of Columbia provide funds for some type of preschool program for children under age 5.

Nonetheless, the lack of quality early childhood education programs in the United States is evident in the significant percentage of children starting kindergarten without the necessary skills to do well in school. Too many of these children lack critical preliminary skills such as knowledge of letters and numbers, how to hold a book, or how to interact positively with their peers and teachers. When unaddressed early on, these deficiencies contribute to the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students—a gap that has narrowed over time, but that still remains too wide. Without opportunities to learn these skills at an early age, students from any background can fall behind later in life. Too many students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have limited access to structured early childhood programs and, therefore, have an even greater risk of falling behind.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"wysiwyg","fid":"958","link_text":null,"field_deltas":{},"attributes":{"alt":"Comparason of Benefits chart","height":"414","width":"252","style":"float: right; height: 414px; width: 252px;","class":"media-image media-element file-wysiwyg","data-delta":"1"},"fields":{}}]]Over the past 40 years, a significant number of studies have demonstrated the important role the early years play in brain development, finding that high-quality early childhood education increases the likelihood that all children—particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds—will become successful students and citizens. The Perry Preschool Study—one of the most comprehensive and prominent longitudinal studies of the effects of early childhood education—quantified the positive impact of high-quality early childhood educational experiences on disadvantaged children's success. Program participants, who were tracked from age 3 or 4 to their late 20s, experienced increases in cognitive skills, academic achievement, high school graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment, and gainful employment when compared to disadvantaged peers without access to early childhood education (see Figure 1). Moreover, this study estimated a $7 public saving for each dollar invested in high-quality preschool programs by minimizing costs incurred by remedial and special education, school dropouts, social disengagement, and future unemployment. Subsequent studies found similar results.1

High-quality programs provide children with stimulating learning opportunities as well as secure and caring relationships with qualified educators and caregivers. The programs also prepare children for school by enhancing language skills and developing a better sense of group work and play with other children. When compared to their peers who have not had high-quality early childhood education, children who have gone through these programs are more likely to develop secure relationships with adults, trust figures of authority, follow directions, and effectively communicate their needs. Young children are capable learners, and having these types of educational experiences during their preschool years helps them learn at a faster rate, become more capable readers and students, and develop socially and emotionally.2

*  *  *

States' growing commitment to early childhood education is made evident by the increasing number of states that fund early childhood education programs. State spending has grown from approximately $700 million in the early 1990s to nearly $2 billion in 2000.3 The number of children served by state-funded early childhood education programs has also increased. Ten years ago, 290,000 children participated in state programs; today, that number has more than doubled.4 However, more work lies ahead in terms of getting all children ready for school, achieving universal accessibility of early childhood programs, and raising the quality of all programs.

Kindergarten teachers report that many children still come to school unprepared, and research has shown that being unprepared jeopardizes children's chances to learn and succeed in school.5 In addition, more than 50 percent of U.S. children have one or more risk factors for school failure,6 including too little exposure to stimulating language, reading, storytelling, and other literacy-building activities upon which later success in schooling is built. Children with these risk factors often have trouble following directions, working independently or in groups, communicating, and establishing secure relationships with adults. They also have lower academic achievement: The math and reading scores of new kindergartners from the lowest socioeconomic status (SES) quintile are 60 percent and 56 percent lower, respectively, than the scores of kindergartners from the highest SES quintile.7 As Table 1(below) highlights, beginning kindergarten students from the lowest socioeconomic status group are already behind their more affluent peers.

Children who have limited English proficiency, who are poor, who are disabled, and whose parents have low literacy skills are the most likely to be unprepared for school, have reading difficulties in the early grades, and be at risk of falling behind in all subject areas down the road. Even when kindergarten teachers do an excellent job helping low-income children who are behind close the learning gap in basic skills, the more-advantaged youngsters continue to have an edge, especially in higher-order skills, reading, and mathematics knowledge.8


Percentage of first-time kindergartners (by mother’s education) who demonstrate proficiency in specific school readiness skills

Readiness skill Children whose
mothers have less
than a high school
Children whose
mothers have a
bachelor's degree
or higher
Letter recognition 38 86
Beginning sounds 9 50
Numbers and shapes 84 99
Relative size 32 79

Judging State Policies

Using the findings and implications of early childhood research, the AFT developed a set of initial criteria by which to judge the policies of states' early childhood education programs. We focused these criteria around two dimensions—access and quality—and highlighted the most basic features of universally accessible, high-quality early childhood programs as identified by the research.9 For each criterion, we then developed a set of indicators around which quality and accessibility rest.

A. Access Indicators
A universally accessible, early childhood education program should include:

  • Access to preschool programs for 3- and/or 4-year-olds;
  • Enrollment priority for preschool children from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • Access to kindergarten.

Access to Preschool Programs
Research has shown that high-quality preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds help children become prepared for formal schooling.10 Research also indicates that these children are the largest segment of children under age 5 who are in multiple-setting, nonparental care for most of the day.11 Increased accessibility to high-quality early childhood education programs for 3- and 4-year-olds would have a great and direct impact on school readiness, minimize the disruptions that can result from placing children in multiple nonparental care settings, and meet the needs of working families.

When the AFT judged state early childhood programs on this dimension, we looked at: (1) how many 3- and 4-year- olds are served by the state's program(s), and (2) whether 3-year-olds (as well as 4-year-olds) are eligible to participate in state program(s).

Enrollment Priority for Disadvantaged Children
An inclusive, noncompulsory, high-quality system of early childhood education should ensure universal access and be publicly funded. Absent universal access, children from disadvantaged backgrounds must be given enrollment priority in early childhood education programs and provided quality services at no cost to their families.

When we judged each state's early childhood programs on this dimension, we looked at enrollment priorities for: (1) low-income children, and (2) children with other risk factors, including living with a single parent, having parents with less than a high school education or who are unemployed, being exposed to alcohol and drug abuse, lacking health insurance, having limited English proficiency, having physical or learning disabilities, or living with parents with low literacy skills.

Access to Kindergarten
Recent studies conducted by the Montgomery County School District in Maryland and the Philadelphia School District provide new evidence that children in full-day kindergarten make greater gains in early language and literacy and have more sophisticated cognitive skills than children enrolled in only half-day programs.12 Getting all children ready to begin the first grade—particularly children from low-income backgrounds—is facilitated by extending kindergarten to a full school day.

When we judged state early childhood education programs on this dimension, we looked to see if the state: (1) funded half-day kindergarten; (2) funded full-day kindergarten; and (3) required enrollment in either full- or half-day kindergarten.

B. Quality Indicators
A state's efforts at quality assurance in early childhood education should include a focus on the following elements:

  • Staff qualifications;
  • Salaries;
  • Adult/child ratios;
  • Program accreditation and school readiness standards.

Staff Qualifications
The staff of a state-funded early childhood education program usually includes teachers and early childhood workers. The teacher is the lead educator put in charge of a classroom; early childhood workers assist the teacher and can also be referred to as assistant teachers, teacher aides, child or daycare workers, paraprofessionals, and associate preschool teachers.

Poor or limited preservice training and/or professional development compromise the quality of early childhood education programs. Research repeatedly has found that high-quality programs showing positive outcomes in children's learning and cognitive development have staff with postsecondary training.13

When we judged each state's early childhood programs on this dimension, we looked at whether the state required: (1) lead early childhood teachers to have a bachelor's degree in all settings, and (2) early childhood workers to have a child development associate's degree, an associate of arts degree, or the equivalent in all settings.

Programs should compensate teachers and other staff in early childhood programs comparably to teachers in K-12 settings. Substandard pay compromises the quality of early childhood programs.14

When the AFT judged each state's early childhood programs on this dimension, we asked about the average annual salaries of: (1) kindergarten teachers in the state; (2) early childhood teachers in state-funded programs; and (3) early childhood workers in state-funded programs.

Adult/Child Ratios
Small group size and low adult/child ratios enable children to interact comfortably with their peers and get more individualized attention from their teachers to help them develop language and problem-solving skills. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and other early childhood experts recommend a ratio of no more than ten 3- and 4-year olds for every one adult.

When we judged each state's early childhood programs on this dimension, we examined whether the state required one teacher or worker for every 10 children or fewer in all settings.

Program Accreditation and School Readiness Standards
State program monitoring should extend beyond compliance with health and safety standards to include program quality. Having programs that are regularly monitored for accreditation helps to ensure quality, continuous improvement, and accountability for public funds. In particular, national accreditation, such as that offered by the NAEYC, supports professionally accepted levels of quality, coherence among programs, and widespread high-quality practices.15

In addition, programs should have and use school readiness standards and curricula that specifically address early language and literacy, early numeracy, social-emotional competence, motor readiness, and physical abilities. Children who are best prepared for the challenges of elementary school have been exposed to extensive language and preliteracy experiences, preliminary math and science, and a variety of age-appropriate classroom activities that develop and enhance reasoning, communication, and problem-solving. When early learning skills fail to develop during the preschool years, risk for later school difficulties increases.16

When we judged each state's early childhood programs on this dimension, we looked at whether states' policies required programs to: (1) be nationally accredited; (2) have school readiness standards; and (3) use the school readiness standards.

What We Found

Nearly every state provides funds for some type of preschool program for children under the age of 5. While this is notable progress, the breadth of these programs remains limited: States only provide state-funded programs to approximately 12 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds. What we have nationwide can, at best, be described as a patchwork of early childhood education programs and initiatives that vary widely in quality, administration, funding, policies, providers, targeted communities, and other matters.

The following findings provide an overview of states' provision of early childhood education, as reflected by the criteria we identified:

  • Four states—Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, and Utah—neither provide a preschool program of their own nor do they supplement Head Start with state funds.
  • Twenty-eight states provide preschool programs to at least some of their 3- and 4-year-olds. (Click here to view Table 2)
  • Twenty-one states give enrollment priority to low-income children and children with other risk factors for all state-funded preschool programs. (Click here to view Table 2)
  • Eight states and the District of Columbia require all early childhood teachers to have a bachelor's degree and all early childhood workers to have at least a child development associate (CDA) credential or equivalent.
  • Eight states pay lead teachers in state early childhood programs a salary comparable to the state's K-12 teachers. National averages, however, reveal great disparities. While the average annual salary of kindergarten teachers is $36,770, that of early childhood teachers is $19,610, and that of early childhood workers is just $15,430.
  • Thirty states require a 1:10 adult/child ratio for all state-funded preschool programs.
  • Fourteen states have school readiness standards and require state-funded programs to use them. (Click here to view Table 3)
  • Every state and the District of Columbia fund half- or full-day kindergarten: Five states provide funds only for half-day kindergarten, nine states and the District of Columbia provide funds only for full-day kindergarten, and 36 states provide funds for both full- and half-day kindergarten.
  • Ninety-three percent of U.S. children go to kindergarten; 13 states require enrollment in kindergarten.

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Based on this study, we recommend that states make preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds (beginning with disadvantaged children) and raise the overall quality of their programs. Critical steps for improving quality include developing and requiring standards, increasing staff training and compensation, and coordinating program administration.

No state has put together all of the components needed to ensure a coherent, comprehensive, high-quality early childhood program for all children. However, some states are well on their way to establishing high-quality early childhood education systems. Other states can and should look to them for guidance and help. States can also study the systems and approaches of other high-achieving industrialized countries, where high-quality, universal preschool is much more widely available than in the United States.

Darion Griffin is associate director of the educational issues department of the American Federation of Teachers, where Giselle Lundy-Ponce is associate policy analyst. This article is excerpted from At the Starting Line: Early Childhood Education Programs in the 50 states (available at and Early Childhood Education: Building a Strong Foundation for the Future (available at




1. In addition to the Perry Preschool Study, pivotal early childhood studies include: the Abecedarian Project; the Chicago Longitudinal Study; and the Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study.

2. NRC 1998; NRC 2000a; NRC 2000b.

3. Children's Defense Fund, 2002; Schulman, et al., 1999.

4. Schulman, et al., 1999.

5. NCES, 2001.

6. Carnegie Task Force, 1994; NCES, 2001.

7. Lee and Burkam, 2002.

8. NCES, 2000a; NCES, 2001.

9. This report does not attempt to provide a comprehensive list of all desired program features.

10. Lee and Burkam, 2002; NRC, 2000a; NCES 2000a.

11. The Urban Institute, 2000.

12. Nielsen and Cooper-Martin, 2002; Del Gaudio Weiss and Offenberg, 2002. These data confirm findings from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2000a).

13. NRC, 1998; NRC, 2000a.

14. In places where salaries are high, as in New York, there are larger numbers of fully qualified teachers.

15. Gomby, et al., 1995; NAEYC, 1999; Education Week's Quality Counts, 2002.

16. NRC, 2000a; NRC, 2000b.


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Children's Defense Fund. (2002). Child Care Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Coley, R.J. (2002). An Uneven Start: Indicators of Inequality in School Readiness. Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service, Policy Information Center. Available on the Internet at

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Gomby, D.S., Larner, B.S., Stevenson, C.S., Lewit, E.M., and Behrman, R.E. (1995). "Long-term outcomes of early childhood programs: Analysis and recommendations." The Future of Children: Long-term Outcomes of Early Childhood Programs, 5(3):25-50. Los Altos, Calif.: Center for the Future of Children, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Lee, V.E., and Burkam, D.T. (2002). Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Background Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.

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National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2000b). From Neurons to Neighborhoods. The Science of Early Childhood Development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, J.P. Shonkoff, and D.A. Phillips (Eds.). Board of Children, Youth, and Families. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

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