What If All Children Could Attend Preschool?

Jan 3, 2017, 3:00 PM, Posted by

In Europe, rich and poor kids alike are enrolling in early care and preschool programs in large numbers. These accomplishments offer us insights for our collective efforts to strengthen early education in the U.S.

Two preschool girls work on a numbers project in a daycare setting.

For the past 18 years, every 4-year-old in Oklahoma has been guaranteed a spot in preschool, for free. These kids are learning their letters, numbers, colors and shapes. They’re also developing arguably more important social and emotional tools--how to make friends, feel empathy, solve problems, manage conflict. These are the kind of building blocks children need to become thriving adults.

Nearly 75 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in Oklahoma’s pre-K program. That's one of the highest participation rates in the country. But if we look across the United States, we see that just 61 percent of kids between the ages of 3 and 6 are enrolled in pre-K, daycare or other formal early childhood education program. 

Why? Of course, many parents stay home or have a friend, neighbor or relative take care of their kid. But a recent Harvard poll of parents with children under the age of five highlights the struggles families face in finding quality, affordable child care. Many parents reported having limited options and said that the cost of child care had caused financial problems. Low-income families were especially likely to report difficulty accessing care.

What’s Happening in Other Countries?

Unlike the U.S., many European countries have nearly universal participation in preschool--rates of 95 percent or higher. What’s more, these countries have high rates of participation even among low-income families.

A recent scan of child care and early education in Europe, conducted by the American Institutes for Research with a grant from RWJF, identified several promising strategies that could increase participation in early childhood education in the United States, particularly among the most vulnerable. 

Some of the most innovative ideas the report spotlights:

●       A continuous birth-to-school system: In Sweden, Family Centers provide prenatal and maternal health care, child health care, day care, preschool, and other social services in a single agency and location from when a child is born until they’re ready to enter school.

●       Community and family engagement: In Belgium, early childhood education agencies use family supporters called “gezinsondersteuners”—paid staff members recruited from local communities who provide support and advice to new parents or to parents who recently immigrated into Belgium. A significant part of their work involves connecting those parents to other child and family services, including referrals to health care services, social workers, and employment agencies.

●       Extra support for the most vulnerable: In Denmark, Norway, and the United Kingdom, low-income parents who don’t have traditional work schedules can receive subsidies to help them cover the costs of care outside of “core” hours (typically 9 a.m.–3 p.m.)

Similar strategies were behind the success of programs across the continent and underscore how we have much to learn from our neighbors overseas.

The European experience also strongly suggests that the best way to reach vulnerable families is to provide universal access to early care and education programs--where all children, no matter where they live or how much money their families earn, have the option to enroll in high quality and affordable child care.

Europe’s accomplishments offer us insights for our collective efforts to strengthen early education in the U.S.

Challenges Can Be Overcome

Every child--and every family--in the U.S. should be able to access high quality, affordable child care and preschool. And we need to make sure the people who have the toughest time accessing these services are not left behind.

Of course, it’s not going to be easy. But it wasn’t easy for European countries either. They faced resistance among teachers about losing their academic focus and becoming “child care providers,” and resistance among parents about early care and education becoming too “school-like” and academic for their younger children. They encountered parents whose cultural norms, lack of awareness and mistrust of government agencies kept them from enrolling their children in the formal programs that were available to them. They navigated a fragmented child care and early education system far removed from similar services for school-age kids. They worked hard to keep the costs of early child care and education services manageable. During the recession, which hit many European countries especially hard, they fought to maintain public and financial support for universal early child care and education.

And they overcame these challenges.

Our Children, Our Future

We’re encouraged that cities and states across the U.S. are embracing universal pre-K and taking steps to improve the child care facilities and preschools our children attend. But it’s time to accelerate these efforts. The repercussions of not doing so are already being felt by families across the country. And are hurting us as a nation.

One thing we can all agree on is that early childhood matters. The earlier we start to nurture children’s well-being, the better chance we have to put them on a path to success.

Read the report Connecting All Children to High Quality Early Care and Education to get started.


Headshot of Susan Mende

Susan Mende, BSN, MPH, a distinguished public health professional with more than 25 years of experience working with underserved populations in the United States, Asia and Australia, joined the Foundation in 2008. Read her full bio.





Tara Oakman

Tara Oakman, PhD, is a senior program officer at RWJF working to improve the value of our investments in health and health care and also to help ensure that all young children—supported by their families and communities—have the building blocks for lifelong health and well-being. Read her full bio.