Study Provides New Evidence on Disparities in Access to Pre-K

Over the past decade, a number of cities and states—including such diverse places as New York City, San Antonio, Seattle, New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, and New Jersey—have significantly increased the number of slots in their public prekindergarten programs. But these investments might not always be reaching the children most likely to benefit.

AERA Open recently published a study, led by researchers from MDRC, the University of Michigan, and the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Department of Early Childhood, that examined enrollment in the well-known and highly regarded BPS pre-K program across a six-year period. Parents of all four-year-olds in Boston can apply for a slot in the public pre-K program, ranking up to 10 different schools in order of preference. The program has the capacity to serve a little more than half of the children in Boston who ultimately enroll in public kindergarten.

Using data from 2012-2018, the research team found that children from families with lower incomes were equally likely to enroll in BPS prekindergarten as children from families with higher incomes. And Dual Language Learners were actually slightly more likely to enroll than their monolingual English-speaking peers. However, Black, Hispanic, and Asian children were about 10 percentage points less likely to enroll than White students, with disparities increasing slightly over the six-year period.

The team saw starker differences when they examined enrollment in prekindergarten in the highest-quality schools. Although there were no differences in enrollment between Asian and White students, Black and Hispanic students were 17 and 15 percentage points less likely than White students to enroll in prekindergarten in the highest-quality schools. Perhaps more concerning, these differences grew over time; Black and Hispanic students’ rate of enrollment in the highest-quality schools was stable across time while White students increased each year.

Although there were no differences across groups in proximity to BPS pre-K programs in general, Black students lived about a quarter of a mile farther than their White peers from the nearest program in a higher-quality school, with disparities also widening over time. Closer proximity was associated with a higher likelihood of enrollment in pre-K in a higher-quality school, suggesting the need to consider how parents across diverse communities make decisions and consider tradeoffs when seeking early care and education for their children.

“These results matter because we often lack systematic data on early learning systems and children’s access to public investments in high-quality early care and education programs,” said lead author Meghan McCormick from MDRC. “The prekindergarten program in Boston was designed to support more equitable learning opportunities for children from marginalized groups, and the district can use this information as it continues to prioritize building a more equitable system.”

Indeed, since 2019 BPS has been expanding its public pre-K program and building a universal pre-K system in which all age-eligible children have access to a high-quality model. BPS is partnering with local community-based organizations to expand the program, seeking to find children who are less likely to access the public school program in the neighborhoods where they