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Indicator: Enrollment in quality public pre-K


Eligible children are enrolled in a publicly funded pre-K program, which can be administered through mixed delivery systems that include Head Start, pre-K classrooms in public schools, and licensed family-based child care programs and community-based organizations.


Percentage of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in public pre-K

Data Source(s)

Administrative data

Why it matters

Pre-K is a first step into K–12 education and establishes an enduring base for future learning. Attending pre-K can boost children’s school readiness, start them on trajectories of academic and life success, and produce a return on investment over time, particularly for children from low-income families and children of color. Lifelong benefits of participating in high-quality early learning include higher earnings, improved health, lower participation in social services programs, and lower chances of involvement with the criminal justice system. However, pre-K enrollment patterns vary by race and ethnicity. As of 2017, enrollment rates among Latino children were lower (30 percent) than those among Black children (34 percent) in publicly funded pre-K programs in their neighborhood. In an analysis of Head Start participation, the participation rate among Latino children was 38 percent, compared with 54 percent for Black children and 43 percent for all eligible children.

What to know about measurement

This indicator focuses on public pre-K given that a growing proportion of children of color and those experiencing poverty attend these programs. However, these populations also attend pre-K programs that are not publicly fundedi, so systems may also consider broadening data collection efforts. State-by-state data on public pre-K enrollment are generally available and are more feasible to collect than data on other programs, because publicly funded programs are subject to regulatory standards and quality monitoring that require data tracking.
Drawing on individual-level records across state systems, aggregate data on pre-K enrollment are reported in different public sources. The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) publishes an annual State of the Preschool Yearbook with statewide enrollment numbers. NIEER reports the number of children of all ages in state pre-K programs, in addition to federally funded Head Start and state-funded Head Start enrollment numbers for 3- and 4-year-old children. However, it does not report enrollment data for 3- and 4-year-old children in other publicly funded programs, such as licensed family-based child care programs and community-based organizations. The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) publishes the number of pre-K students served in local education agency facilities only, and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) annually collects school enrollment rates of all 3- to 5-year-olds.

i Children might also attend programs that do not receive public funds. These programs vary in their data collection, including private community-based centers that may offer scholarships (such as a local YMCA or community center), classrooms in religious institutions (such as a church preschool), or other out-of-market options that are financially accessible to families with low incomes, but are not publicly funded.

Source frameworks

Enrollment in pre-K appeared in 12 source frameworks reviewed for this report. Our recommendation to emphasize public pre-K aligns with recommendations put forth by the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).


The framework's recommendations are based on syntheses of existing research. Please see the framework report for a list of works cited.

This website was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.