U.S. pre-K enrollment falls behind European countries

U.S. pre-K enrollment falls behind European countries

(District of Columbia) While increased state and federal funding has helped a growing number of children enroll in pre-kindergarten programs, the U.S. still lags far behind other high-income countries, according to a new study.

In a report released last week by the American Institutes for Research, participation in pre-school in countries such as Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and France was found to be drastically higher than in America, largely due to differing government policies and programs in those countries.

“Possibly the most striking and consistent similarity across countries with high rates of pre-school participation is that all children in those countries are legally entitled to it,” authors of the report–Hans Bos, senior vice president of AIR, and Gabriele Fain, a principal researcher on the project–said in a statement. “Such an entitlement protects preschool programs from being affected by economic downturns and political shifts.”

Other research has long held that children who participate for two years in high quality pre-school programs often have higher rates of graduation, college attendance and employment than their peers, and are less likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system, and require academic remediation or special education services.

As a result, many states have included in their budgets money to expand access to state-funded pre-K programs for low-income families in recent years, and the U.S. Department of Education established a grant to help states improve the quality of those programs.

Researchers at the American Institutes for Research examined access to and participation in pre-school in 17 countries, including Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Norway.

Data from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development shows that in 2012, the pre-school participation rate of 3- to 5-year-olds in the U.S. in 66 percent–far lower than rates of more than 95 percent in eight countries, and between 90 and 95 percent in five other countries.

In Denmark, for instance, researchers found that 98 percent of 3- to 5-year-old children participate in pre-school, and in Poland, pre-school participation increased more than 35 percent between 2001 and 2012–the current participation rate is 70 percent.

According to authors of the report, the most consistent similarity across countries with high rates of preschool participation is that all children in those countries are legally entitled to it, making enrollment he default child care option for working parents. Often, these countries also have strong financial support from the public, which authors found ensured that pre-school is affordable for all children, including those in middle-income families that otherwise might not qualify for government aid programs.

Additionally, programs in the other high-income countries included in the study connect low-income families to the same preschool programs available to higher-income children in order to promote social and economic integration, consistent quality, and positive peer interactions among children from different backgrounds. Researchers found that while programs sometimes give preferential enrollment to the most vulnerable children, the goal remains to support a single universal pre-K system.

Several states and cities in the U.S. were highlighted as successfully operating universal pre-kindergarten programs that have high and fast-growing participation rates across income groups. New York City’s free Pre-K for All program added 50,000 program slots between 2014 and 2016 and enrolled children across all income groups and neighborhoods citywide.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, achieved a 91 percent preschool enrollment rate among four-year olds last year, which researchers note is comparable to many Northern European countries.

While progress has been made, researchers said that more must be done to increase access to universal pre-K throughout the country.

“Unfortunately, despite this public and academic support, more than one in three children in the U.S. still enter kindergarten without having attended any formal pre-school program,” authors of the report concluded. “This proportion is considerably higher than in most other high-income countries in the world.”