Everyone agrees that universal pre-K is important. So why are there more states?

California is in the midst of implementing a plan that would create a free, public pre-K program (known as transitional kindergarten) for every 4-year-old in the state by the 2025-2026 school year. It sounds like a big, blue state priority, but it’s also a red state. California will join states such as West Virginia, Alabama and Oklahoma in aiming to provide universal preschool programs that serve all 4-year-olds in their states.

Welcome to the strange, patchwork world of preschool politics.

Both sides seem to agree that spending money to educate young children is a worthwhile mission, and there’s plenty of evidence for that. Yet national plans for preschool programs have stalled in Congress. So, governors and state legislatures are taking the lead. During the current legislative term, at least 14 states are discussing preschool expansion. But how states choose to do this can vary widely, contributing unequally to an already unequal system.

Over the past decade, more and more research has shown that investing in early childhood education can provide long-term benefits for children that far outweigh its short-term costs. This is especially true for children in families that cannot currently afford to send them to preschool. Policymakers, advocates, and researchers hope that making these programs universal and integrated into existing public school systems will improve their reach, make it easier for families to enroll, and improve educational standards and teacher pay.

It is the issue that is part of the universal. All but four states—Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming—have a state-run preschool program that reaches some students, but the scope of each varies. Programs typically target specific populations, either in specific cities or specific demographics of students, such as children from low-income families or those with special education needs.

There are different measures of how many children are in preschool, but each shows that there are many more children who could be there. The National Institute for Early Education Research said about 39 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in Head Start, state-funded preschool and early childhood special education public programs nationwide in the 2020-2021 school year. NIEER and other research and advocate groups consider a program universal when its enrollment reaches 70 percent of all 4-year-olds in the state.

Not all preschool programs are of course the same. In general, as with other levels of education, the advocates and researchers I spoke with defined high-quality as:

  • Teachers who are at least college educated;
  • Continuing professional development opportunities so they can stay updated on the latest educational research;
  • small class sizes and teaching assistants with low student-to-teacher ratios in classrooms;
  • and quality materials and curriculum.

Typically, that means more money, which makes those goals more difficult for states. Especially since there won’t be a new spigot of money specifically for preschool coming from the federal government. State budgets were recently bolstered by the COVID-19 stimulus package, but that funding will disappear over the next few fiscal years.

Since the beginning of his term, President Biden has championed early childhood education. Universal, publicly funded pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds became part of the “social infrastructure” priorities included in his Build Back Better plan. The plan proposed funding preschool programs primarily through the public school system, with the federal government picking up the entire tab for the program’s first three years. The plan was reduced in size and scope as it worked its way through the House, passing in November 2021 before dying in the Senate.

Now, many governors are moving forward, and Democrats are using Biden’s unpassed plan as a guide. Last spring, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a universal preschool bill into law. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan for pre-K for all 4-year-olds in her State-of-the-State address last week. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker promised state-funded preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old during his inauguration in January. Similar pledges came from governors in Arizona, Hawaii, Maryland and New Mexico. Most of those plans are in early stages, and governors say funding for new grades and increasing classroom capacity is a multi-year process.

Build Back Better California was also an inspiration for the design. “In California, people were looking at what was in that package and what was coming from the federal government and decided, like many other states, we’re going to prioritize that,” said Hannah Melnick, a senior policy adviser. In Learning Policy Institute. “There was longstanding support and pressure from advocates in the Legislature and then the governor’s office, who all came together to make this possible without federal funding.” The state already has a state-funded preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds that is smaller and more targeted, as well as federally funded Head Start, which is limited to children from families living in poverty. These new programs will exist alongside them.

Republican governors are also taking up the cause in many states. Alabama, which earns top marks from NIEER for the quality of its programs, is opening new classrooms this year as it moves toward a 70 percent enrollment goal. A Mississippi lawmaker has vowed to introduce a bill to expand his state’s small preschool program over the next five years. Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has listed early childhood education as one of her education priorities, the subject of an executive order she signed on her first day in office.

All of these moves by Republicans come despite their party’s resistance to Biden’s nationwide proposal. Federalism, as always, has been the problem. Republicans didn’t like the quality standards that would have been mandated by Biden’s plan, as well as the proposal’s years-long shift from federal to state funding. Now, as states put together their own plans, state programs can be quite different from each other

Money would be a reason why. Programs that aim to replicate Biden’s plan would be too expensive for states to implement on their own. Alabama has been able to meet NIEER’s quality standards by starting small and gradually expanding, while a program like California’s is instead focused on bringing in as many kids as possible, said Alison Friedman-Krauss, assistant research professor at NIEER. “Smaller programs are sometimes able to meet more criteria given that they’re investing in fewer kids.” Many more of these states are trying to improve standards over time, he said.

Staffing and teacher pay will be an issue nationwide. Gov. Gavin Newsom increased California’s education spending by 13 percent in his most recent budget, but the increase was spread among priorities that ranged from raising teacher pay to increasing financial aid for state colleges. Some districts say it’s stretching resources.

“What we’re seeing is that no matter how you slice it, there’s just going to be a major workforce expansion,” Melnick said of the California program. There are also questions about how the expansion of California’s new transitional kindergarten program will affect the already strained workforce at other early childhood education and child care programs, since teachers in the new program will earn more, she said.

For all these reasons, many advocates expect the return of some or all elements of Build Back Better COVID-19 recovery plans have created additional money for education, but that additional money is dwindling as states face a possible economic downturn.