Chicago’s Pre-K Policy Has Important Lessons to Teach Us

Opinion | Early Learning

Chicago’s Pre-K Policy Has Important Lessons to Teach Us

By Maia Connors and Amanda Stein     Jun 25, 2021

Chicago’s Pre-K Policy Has Important Lessons to Teach Us

As early childhood researchers, we’ve spent our careers steeped in an enormous body of work that documents the long-term positive impacts of quality early care and education on the lives of those fortunate enough to experience it. The pre-academic and social-emotional skills children develop in preschool—the ability to manage frustration, work with peers, ask for help, and recover from setbacks and disruptions—create the foundation upon which future school and life success is built.

Yet with all the research demonstrating the benefits of early education for those most in need—and there is plenty—access to quality preschool programs remains inequitable. Often, access depends on a family’s ability to pay for and transport their child to and from center-based programs—which can cost more than tuition at in-state public college—or whether they happen to live in one of the handful of cities and states that offer free or sliding-scale public preschool programs. To put it in perspective, even before the pandemic, just 34 percent of 4-year-olds and 6 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in public preschool.

The Biden administration’s American Families Plan aims to change this, calling for unprecedented investments in our nation’s system of early learning and care. The plan, which faces an uphill battle in Congress, proposes a $200 billion federal investment for free, universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as $225 billion to support access to affordable, inclusive and quality learning and child care opportunities, including child care centers, family child care providers and Early/Head Start.

As cities and states explore policy strategies for how to use this unprecedented funding to expand pre-K, early childhood leaders will have a great deal of control over who has access to pre-K through policy decisions that influence which students enroll, where they enroll and ultimately, what they can achieve academically. As cities and states implement different strategies, one of the questions that will arise is: Which policies are best at creating pathways to better outcomes, especially for children from under-resourced communities?

Chicago may be on to a strategy that works.

For years, the students who enrolled in Chicago Public Schools’ limited number of full-day pre-K classrooms were largely from white families living in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. But recognizing this imbalance, in 2013, the City of Chicago rolled out major policy changes to create more equitable enrollment in pre-K programs.

The policy changes that arose from this effort included increasing the number of full-day pre-K classrooms, reallocating classrooms to create a stronger presence in “high-priority” neighborhoods, and grassroots awareness campaigns to families whose children were not already enrolled in pre-K. The goal was to enroll more students from “high-priority” groups—in other words, students of color and students living in neighborhoods with lower incomes and higher unemployment—to help them better prepare for success in kindergarten and beyond.

As researchers at Start Early, a nonprofit public-private partnership advancing quality early learning and care based in Chicago, we have a long history of collaborating with Chicago Public Schools and City of Chicago policymakers. So when our colleagues began to ask questions about what their administrative data could tell them about what happened when they rolled out these policy changes, we were eager to help them find out.

Working with our partners at NORC at the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, our research found that these policy changes led to greater equity in both access to and enrollment in full-day pre-K in the city.

Notably, the number of Black students and those from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods tripled within the first three years of the policy changes going into effect. The concentration of full-day pre-K seats increased most on the West and South Sides of Chicago, in neighborhoods where children have historically been under-enrolled in pre-K and underserved by the city’s early education system.

We were even more excited to find that by expanding access and enrollment, children were more likely to enter kindergarten with higher skills and, eventually, achieve better academic outcomes in second grade. Average second-grade math and reading test scores and academic grades increased the most for some high-priority student groups. The post-policy differences in academic grades for Black children corresponded to an improvement of nearly 0.10 on a four-point grading scale, compared to no change in academic grades for white students and only about half the gains for students in the highest-income group.

Again, the research is clear: Quality early learning and care is one of the best ways to level the playing field. Millions of children living in under-resourced communities would be more likely to thrive in school and in life if only they had access to quality early learning and care programs.

From a policy perspective, the study offers consistent, significant evidence that a set of pre-K policy changes made at the system level—intentionally targeting high-priority student groups—enabled Chicago to achieve its goals of providing more equitable enrollment and academic outcomes within the first three years of implementation.

So, as early childhood systems leaders begin planning to respond to the American Families Plan and developing policies to expand pre-K—hopefully with equity top of mind—our study suggests they might consider following Chicago’s lead.

This means monitoring patterns in their own data, such as changes in pre-K access and enrollment and in elementary school outcomes for different student groups, and engaging in research partnerships (like ours) to explore why those patterns exist and how to change them to meet local goals. It may also mean having hard conversations and acknowledging uncomfortable truths about existing systems, but this is what is necessary if we hope to provide truly equitable access to quality early education for all children in this country through universal preschool.

Of course, access to school-based, full-day pre-K alone cannot undo long-standing systemic inequities in our communities. States and cities must consider other key policies to address the inequities in students’ early academic achievement, such as those that support preschool-to-third-grade instructional alignment, home-school partnerships that engage families, restorative or inclusive school discipline policies, and reduction of poverty and violence.

As we emerge from the pandemic, pre-K and other quality programs serving preschool-age children will be a critical part of building an early childhood system that prioritizes and supports families when it matters most. Working together, researchers, policymakers and systems leaders can figure out which policies work best for children and families and help ensure every child has access to a great early learning experience.

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