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What Good Preschool Looks Like: Snapshots From 4 States

Sean Ashby
Getty Images

A new report, out today, provides 186 pages of answers to one of the toughest questions in education:

What does it take to get preschool right?

Parents and politicians alike want to know. States are spending roughly $7 billion this year on early childhood education, despite the fact that there are more cautionary tales — like this one from Tennessee — than success stories.

Today's release from The Learning Policy Institute, "The Road to High-Quality Early Learning: Lessons from the States," helps balance the preschool debate by highlighting a handful of states that appear to be getting pre-K right: Michigan, West Virginia, Washington and North Carolina.

Here's a quick primer on each program and a few reasons why the LPI thinks it's working.


State-funded pre-K is nothing new to Michigan. The state began its program back in 1985. Today, the Great Start Readiness Program serves more than 38,000 at-risk 4-year-olds at a cost of roughly $6,447 (state dollars) per child, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. As for results, the program appears to have improved kindergarten readiness, later reading and math performance, and, ultimately, high school graduation rates.

A few more key Michigan facts from today's report:

  • Class size is capped at 18
  • Most children (80 percent) attend for a full day
  • Teacher-child ratio must be 1-to-8 or better
  • All lead teachers must have a state teaching certificate with an early childhood education or early childhood-general and
    special education endorsement; or a bachelor's in early childhood education or child development with a specialization in preschool teaching
  • Early childhood specialists ("experts with an M.A. and five or more years of relevant experience") conduct regular classroom visits, coaching teachers
  • Emphasizes family engagement, mandating at least four family contacts each year and involving parents in local advisory committees
  • Uses a voluntary, five-star quality rating and improvement system (QRIS)
  • It should come as no surprise that Great Start's price tag has grown considerably since 1985, when it cost just $1 million (creating 700 part-day slots). With bipartisan support and a strong push from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan doubled its 2012-13 pre-K budget, spending $240 million on the program in 2014-15.

    West Virginia

    The Mountain State's pre-K efforts stand out for several reasons, but the most obvious is that it is the only state in this report — and one of the few in the nation — that offers preschool to all 4-year-olds, not just those who are considered at-risk. It began its universal program, known as WV Pre-K, in 2002 and now spends $6,427 in state dollars per child (according to NIEER), serving three-quarters of the state's 4-year-olds as well as 3-year-olds with special needs. Key facts:

  • Class size is capped at 20
  • 93 percent of classrooms are full-day
  • Teacher-child ratio must be 1-to-10 or better
  • All lead teachers must have either: a state teaching license with early education or preschool special needs endorsement; a professional teaching certificate with early childhood, preschool education, or preschool special needs endorsement; or a bachelor's in child development, early childhood, or occupational development with early childhood emphasis
  • Requires teachers to meet with parents face-to-face at least twice a year
  • Given its universal program, West Virginia sits near the top of NIEER's access rankings, in fifth place, though its full-day programs generally only serve children for four days a week. The new LPI report notes that a new push toward five-day, full-day preschool will put serious strain on the ability of West Virginia communities to find, pay and retain qualified teachers.


    The Washington Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program is the smallest preschool effort highlighted in today's report, largely serving children whose families will earn no more than $26,730 this year (for a family of four). But, while the program lacks scale, it provides a remarkable depth of services.

  • Class size is capped at 20
  • 81 percent of programs are part-day
  • Teacher-child ratio must be 1-to-10 or better
  • All lead teachers must have either: a state teaching certificate with an endorsement in early education; a teaching degree; or an associate degree with 30 credits in early education
  • According to the report, "All classes are required to have a coach; coaches and teachers are encouraged to meet once a week"
  • Provides extensive wraparound services for children, including health, dental and vision screenings as well as health care referrals
  • Mandates a minimum of three hours of "documented family support per year"
  • In 2017, will roll out a new quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) not only for its state-funded pre-K but also for child care providers
  • It's worth noting that, while Washington's state-funded pre-K program is still relatively small, the city of Seattle has made a big move toward universal preschool for all 4-year-olds. Families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level get in for free. Everyone else pays on a sliding scale.

    North Carolina

    NC Pre-K, as it's now known, began in 2001 and played a starring role in a contentious, long-running school funding lawsuit against the state. More on that here. Today, it serves nearly 27,000 4-year-olds from households living on less than $51,000 a year (for a family of 4).

  • Class size is capped at 18
  • 100 percent of children attend full-day programs
  • Teacher-child ratio must be 1-to-9 or better
  • All lead teachers must have either: a bachelor's in early childhood education, child development or a related field, as well as a birth-through-kindergarten teaching license or a preschool add-on teaching license
  • Provides rigorous coaching for teachers, including "observational assessments and support for first three years in classroom as part of licensure process, followed by annual observational assessments and professional development thereafter"
  • All children receive a health assessment when they begin the program
  • Teachers draft "family engagement plans" that include parent-teacher conferences and home visits
  • Uses a five-star rating system to evaluate all child care, Head Start and state-funded pre-K programs
  • Unlike the other states on this list, North Carolina has been scaling back its commitment to public preschool. Funding peaked in 2009 at $188 million. In 2014-15, state appropriations and lottery receipts, combined, totaled just over $120 million.

    The good news for the program is that, unlike those many cautionary tales we mentioned earlier, NC Pre-K appears to have lasting benefits, with low-income children who attended the program outperforming those who didn't in third-grade math and English.

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    Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.