Fifty-one percent of 3-year olds and seventy-four percent of 4-year olds are in some form of pre-k, with programs including the federal Head Start program, state-funded pre-k, and private pre-school programs. In 2007, one million 3 and 4-year olds attended state-funded pre-k programs, up by 80,000 from 2006.
The percentage of children without access to pre-k varies from state to state, with twelve states having no pre-k programs, and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) writing, “The chances for a child to benefit from state pre-K are largely determined by the state where he or she lives.” In states with pre-k systems, children without pre-k are largely from families with too much income for federal and state income-qualified programs and not enough income to afford private pre-school tuitions. A November 2008 Pew-funded report coins the gapping of the middle-class the “Pre-K Pinch” and advocates for increasing access to high-quality state pre-k.
"Many economically-advanced countries provide free preschool for all children," says Sara Watson, senior officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a key NIEER funder. "If the United States is to remain competitive in a global economy, we cannot lose a single child. We must invest in preschool education that will help put every child on the right track to succeed."
The universalization of pre-k will be an education leap forward on the scale of the GI bill and the Pell grant, but for now, the movement towards a tipping point of universality is in limbo and depends on the stimulus and state budget decisions. In one scenario, states will keep their pre-k funding budgets stable thanks to a Washington bailout while additional stimulus favored by the Democrats will create 350,000 new pre-k seats (while creating 15,000 early childhood teaching and teaching assistant jobs). In a grimmer scenario for pre-k, Republicans will gut pre-k from the stimulus legislation and the bailout for the states will leave some particularly hard-hit states with budget shortfalls that trigger decreases in pre-k funding level. Whatever happens over the next two weeks, in the years ahead, the country will likely redefine formal schooling as beginning at age four—and eventually at age three.