Universal Pre-K in the United States

what is universal pre-k?
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What is universal pre-K? The answer is a little complicated as there is more than one definition. Universal pre-K refers to state government-funded preschool programs (meaning free to those who attend it). It also refers to the movement by early childhood education experts and advocates who want to make preschool available to every child in the United States.

Ideally, universal pre-K programs should be made accessible to any child in a given state, regardless of their abilities or their family's income status. According to a statement on advancing equity in early childhood education made by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in 2019, "All children have the right to equitable learning opportunities that enable them to achieve their full potential as engaged learners and valued members of society. Advancing the right to equitable learning opportunities requires recognizing and dismantling the systems of bias that accord privilege to some and are unjust to others."

Who Offers Universal Pre-K?

A 2018 report published by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) found that all but six states offered some form of voluntary universal pre-K, but not every child enrolls. Additionally, two states—Vermont and Florida—plus the District of Columbia, have no restrictions on their universal pre-K offerings, meaning that programs can't be capped at enrollment numbers or based on funding restrictions, making them truly universal offerings.

The ECS report also found that pre-K programs offered in Oklahoma and West Virginia offered "varying levels of universality," while programs in Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, New York, and Wisconsin are widely considered to be "mostly universal." In order to be considered as true universal pre-K, the program must be offered to all children, no matter the circumstances.

If you're in a state that offers universal pre-K, you may wonder whether it's right for your little one. In other words, just because a universal pre-K program is available, does that mean your child should attend?

Is Universal Pre-K Right for My Child?

If you think your child is ready to start preschool and are starting to look at the different programs and offerings available, it's likely you'll have a lot of questions. And just because your state offers universal pre-K doesn't always mean that it's going to be the right fit for your child.

Universal pre-K programs vary from state-to-state in terms of methodology, availability, eligibility, and execution. (Universal pre-K should not be confused with Head Start, which is a federally-funded program for low-income children and their families.) Universal pre-K programs also vary from school-to-school within the same state, although in theory, some would argue they should follow a similar curriculum.

If you are considering a universal pre-K program for your child, you should approach it like you would any other preschool program. Visit the school both with and without your child to get a feel for what it's like. Ask plenty of questions to the teachers and administrators. Talk to parents of children who are currently students. What do they like about the program? What would they change?

Why Universal Pre-K Is Important

Advocates for universal pre-K argue that society has a responsibility to provide high-quality education to all of its youngest members, citing among other things, higher standardized test scores and easier social acclimation for children who attend. They would like to see fully-funded programs available for all students nationwide regardless of income, similar to kindergarten programs.

For your child to succeed, education ought to begin at the earliest possible age. As President Barack Obama had said in State of the Union address in 2013, "Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But here’s the thing: We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance—because fewer than 3 in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Education Commission of the States. How States Fund Pre-K.

  2. Daniels N. The New York Times. Should Public Preschool Be a Right for All Children?.

  3. National Association for the Education of Young Children. Advancing Equity: Position.

  4. Duncan GJ, Magnuson K. Investing in Preschool Programs. J Econ Perspect. 2013;(27)2:109-132. doi:10.1257/jep.27.2.109

  5. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Office of Head Start - Head Start Programs.

  6. Frédérique E, Barnett WS. National Association of Elementary School Principals. High-quality, universal pre-K can impact the nation’s international ranking.

  7. Education Commission of the States. Full-Day Kindergarten.

  8. Curtis C. The White House Archives - Barack Obama. President Obama: High Quality Pre-K Is "Good Bang for your Educational Buck".

By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.