When we talk about creating “universal” access to preschool, versus expanding “targeted” preschool, we largely are asking whether we should just expand preschool for the poor, versus whether we should also expand preschool for the working class and middle class.
Pre-k enrollment rates are already very high for the upper class. For example, for families with more than $100,000 in income, enrollment rates of 4-year olds in preschool are 89%. Enrollment rates are also high for families with between $60,000 and $100,000 in income, for whom preschool enrollment at age 4 tends to be around 80%.
Of course, we don’t know whether all these preschools are high-quality. But we would suspect that many of these families can afford high-quality preschool and do seek it out and purchase it.
Pre-k enrollment rates at age 4 are next highest for the poor. Preschool enrollment rates are a little over 60% for families with less than $20,000 in income. Much of this enrollment would be in Head Start, and in some state pre-k programs.
Pre-k enrollment rates are lower for 4 year olds in families with between $20,000 and $60,000 in income, where enrollment rates tend to be between 50 and 60%. In cases where these families had to pay all of their preschool costs, we would be concerned that the preschool quality might be low because of too few resources to have a reasonable class size and adequate teacher salaries. Of course, some of this enrollment is in state pre-k programs, which in many (but not all) cases are high-quality programs.
The fundamental issue is: should pre-k expansions be focused simply on expanding the access of poor households to high-quality preschool? Or should pre-k expansions also seek to significantly expand access to high-quality preschool for the working class and middle class? It is this group of households, with income in the $20,000 to $60,000 range, that is most affected by the debate over targeted versus universal preschool.
Of course, the debate over universal versus targeted preschool also has considerable symbolic importance. I will come back to that issue in a future blog post.