The Case for Universal Kindergarten

Early childhood education leads to stronger academic outcomes both in and beyond K-12, as well as better social and emotional outcomes, and more economic success.


The country’s education system received a tough blow with the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s Nation’s Report Card, the first one released since 2019. The report showed exactly how much the pandemic has impacted education, with the results being large declines in math scores and dips in reading scores among students across the country.

And we will likely continue to see discrepancies regarding kids who hadn’t yet started elementary school during the pandemic. 

“Even for kids in free public kindergarten, it looked so different because some kids are virtual, some didn’t enroll in kindergarten at all, some kids attended in person,” says Dr. Carrie Gillispie, a senior P-12 research associate at The Education Trust. “And that level of variability has had such an effect on first grade and second grade and what that has looked like for kids because they have such highly variable experiences.” 

In 2020, 17% of families with kindergarten-aged children were delaying enrollment, which was triple the amount from a decade earlier in 2010.

Then you mix in kids who didn’t have access to kindergarten at all, and first and second grade becomes even more challenging for schools, families, educators, and students.

In 2020, 17% of families with kindergarten-aged children were delaying enrollment, which was triple the amount from a decade earlier in 2010. “This increase in delayed enrollment also spans across cultures and demographic groups,” Erica Vevurka, director of K-12 at The Hunt Institute, wrote in a statement to Word In Black, adding that “the widening learning gap during the pandemic has led to additional states considering mandatory pre-kindergarten and kindergarten as a learning recovery strategy.”

So how would this be different if pre-k or kindergarten were required for students in all 50 states instead of only 20?

The Benefits of High-Quality Early Childhood Education

Researchers have been documenting the benefits of high-quality early childhood education for decades, and it continues to be positive. Children in these programs tend to have stronger academic outcomes both in and beyond K-12, as well as better social and emotional outcomes, and more economic success.

new study out of Georgetown University looks at links between universal pre-k programs and college enrollment, finding that students who attended pre-k were 12 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than those who didn’t. Further, results showed that Black students who attended pre-k were more likely to enroll in both two-year and four-year institutions than their peers who did not.

A key aspect is that high-quality early childhood education must be paired with high-quality elementary school, Gillispie says. 

“There has to be a continuous, high-quality experience for children,” Gillispie says. “We owe that to them for these great outcomes to come to fruition.

This time period is essential for creating conditions for students to learn, says Shernice Lazare, Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at the Los Angeles-based Citizens of the World Charter Schools. This is where students learn a lot of social development: self-regulation, sharing, taking turns, and building the focus to sit and solve a math problem or phonetically sound out words.

So it’s worrisome that early childhood education was among the hardest hit in terms of attendance rates due to the pandemic. In the first year of the pandemic, school enrollment for 3- to 4-year-olds fell 13 percentage points, landing at 40%, and fell 6 percentage points for 5-year-olds, dropping to 84%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2022 Condition of Education report.

“On a social-emotional level, it is really important,” Lazare says. “They’re expected to be able to sit on the rug and take turns and all those things, and be able to read. That’s a lot of cognitive demand on students.”

Black Families Would Benefit From Universal Programs

Even prior to the pandemic, no state offered both high access and high-quality preschool for Black and Latino children, Gillispie says, which was the subject of a 2019 Education Trust report. In fact, the report found that only 1% of Latino children and 4% of Black children in the states analyzed were enrolled in high-quality programs that were funded by the state, and 10 states enrolled less than 25% of Black children in these programs.

And now, with the pandemic disproportionately impacting Black families in terms of health and job loss, it’s much more difficult when they’re on their own to find childcare.

“Ultimately, we know that Black children and families face the most educational injustice,” Gillispie says.

This leads to a lack of social-emotional development and awareness of what it means to be a community, Lazare says. And we see the effect of this on Black students, specifically Black boys, when it comes to higher discipline rates and being referred to special education programs.

“If students don’t have those foundational skills of what it means to be a part of community, what it means to be a part of learners,” Lazare says, “and they’re entering spaces at 6- and 7-years-old, they will oftentimes be labeled as having behavioral problems.”


But it’s not just about access. The programs have to be high-quality, Gillispie says, meaning they are culturally responsive and culturally competent with strong engagement between the families and school, and they also have to support children who speak or are learning more than one language, as well as students with disabilities and delays.

And, Gillispie says, it means “doing this all through a lens of understanding the systemic and historical and current inequities that Black families have faced when trying to access early childhood education.”

However, there is a lack of research focused specifically on low-income Black communities, which is reflected in the information available about the impact of early childhood education. So even though research shows that children who attend high-quality early childhood education programs see higher success, “much of the research around the benefits of pre-k programs for Black children does not account for the economic diversity of the Black community,” Vevurka wrote. 

“Research suggests that high-quality pre-K is largely unavailable to Black children from low-income communities as a result of continued racial and economic segregation,” Vevurka wrote. “Therefore, research focused on the long-term benefits of high-quality pre-K for Black children is likely reflecting the experience of Black children from middle and high-income communities.”

Mandates Would Help Close the Opportunity Gap

It’s important to note that simply mandating pre-k or kindergarten programs wouldn’t ensure that they’re high-quality, which is key. Though states might write legislation to make sure there’s a level of quality, either in practice or implementation, it doesn’t always shake out, Gillispie says. Other times, the money is put into a small number of programs, so they are high-quality but not widely accessible. 

So what would actually change if these programs were mandatory? A lot, actually.

For one, in addition to creating access to programs, it would also create access to information, Lazare says.

“It is often up to the family or the neighborhood or the community to say, ‘Hey, this is really important, you need to do this,’” Lazare says of “access deserts” in the Black community.. “And if it is not mandated, if it is not publicized, if there are not wraparound services or social programs in the community and it’s up to individuals, a lot of Black families don’t have access to that information to know this is something available to them.” 

And mandatory programs, whether children enroll at 3, 4, or 5, would lessen the burden of childcare on families — especially on Black women. A May 2021 report from the New York City Economic Development Corporation found that around 519,000 workers, who were mostly women and women of color, were not working because they had to take care of children

Every type of child care is now more expensive than it was pre-pandemic, according to Care, with the majority of parents surveyed now spending more than 20% of their household income on child care costs. Check out this interactive calculator to see what the average child care costs are in your area.

Mandatory programs would have a “very big impact” on closing the opportunity gap, Gillispie says. Even if children currently started formal education at the same age, white families — particularly wealthy white families — have a lot of privilege and access that others don’t, Lazare says. 

“Even if their child never stepped foot in a traditional pre-K or kindergarten classroom,” Lazare says, learning occurs in their vacations, museum passes, books, conversations, music, and plays that they have access to — access that “often doesn’t exist for Black students and families.”

And there’s a misconception that so few families access early childhood education programs because that’s their preference. 

“Far too few families get access to programs when they want them,” Gillispie says. “We have every reason to believe, based on our research, that it would have a huge impact on the opportunity gap.”

Why Hasn’t This Been Done?

The word “mandate” often has a negative connotation, which is why people often refer to these programs as “universal” pre-k or kindergarten. But there’s more than just word choice that goes into the push back against these programs.

It often boils down to having enough funding for the required resources to help programs become and maintain high quality. This was California governor Gavin Newsom’s reasoning for recently vetoing legislation that would have made kindergarten mandatory in the state, saying they need to “remain disciplined when it comes to spending.”

And right now, there’s a lot of strain on the workforce without enough people in the building to support high-quality learning. Programs need to put funding toward recruiting and retaining the workforce, Gillispie says. 

Another misconception is that people think pre-k and kindergarten are just napping, snacks, and playtime. But when you’re younger, “your brain is like a sponge,” Lazare says, and there’s so much social, cognitive, and academic learning that happens during that period.

Kindergarten is far more complex, in that it is far more formative and foundational in students’ social, emotional, and academic success.


There are so many benefits to being in a community of learners. For kids that young, it’s often the first time you’re around people who don’t look like you or speak the same language, and you’re making relationships and connections with people who aren’t family.

“Kindergarten is far more complex, in that it is far more formative and foundational in students’ social, emotional, and academic success,” Lazare says.

Access to high-quality early childhood education is a change for people, Lazare says. K-12 education is already underfunded in this country, so adding pre-k or kindergarten to the budget seems like stretching already limited resources even thinner.

“A big hesitation is that it hasn’t been done before, so why change it? Change is hard for people,” Lazare says. “But having some structured learning conditions in a community is really important for student success.”

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