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 Equitable Access to High-Quality Early Learning Programs DomainEquitable Access to High-Quality Early Learning Programs

“Early childhood education is a strong predictor of kindergarten readiness, and one of the most common and policy-relevant out-of-home experiences that young children have

Early learning programs are the foundation of students’ learning. Research has shown positive associations between participation in early learning programs and children’s cognitive skills.2, 3 This domain, Equitable Access to High-Quality4 early learning programs, is examined in relation to one indicator—access to and participation in high-quality early learning programs—using data from the Early Childhood Program Participation Survey of the 2016 National Household Education Surveys Program (ECPP-NHES:2016) and the Current Population Survey (CPS). These indicators are based on recommendations in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) framework. The NASEM report notes that some of the recommended indicators have limitations. Currently, the Equity in Education Dashboard provides data based on published products. Because data in our published products do not always perfectly align with the recommended indicators in the NASEM report, we have indicated where our data differ from recommendations in the report. More findings will be added to the Equity in Education Dashboard over time. Whereas the NASEM report uses access to and enrollment in “licensed pre-k programs”, this domain uses access to and participation in early learning programs. Although neither CPS nor ECPP-NHES contain information on availability of care or the quality of the instruction or care provided by any child care environment, these studies do provide useful information about children’s participation in nonparental care arrangements and early schooling (including, for example, relative care, nonrelative care, center-based care, and prekindergarten programs), as well as the parent respondent's perceptions about access to good choices for care and education programs, along with difficulty finding care and education, all of which are important constructs related to access to high-quality early learning programs. Group differences in this domain are examined across ten educational equity dimensions: age of child, sex,5 race/ethnicity, locale, socioeconomic status (SES), parents’ highest level of educational attainment, household type, parents’ employment status, mother’s employment status, and family income, wherever the data allow.6

Key Findings on Equitable Access to High-Quality Early Learning Programs

The Access to High-Quality Early Learning Programs indicator examines two constructs: (1) the availability of early care and education programs, measured indirectly by parents’ perceptions of the availability of good choices and difficulty finding child care options (including the reasons for the difficulty and cost of enrollment); and (2) children’s participation in various child care or early learning programs.

  • In 2016, there were differences in the percentages of children under age 6 whose parents felt there were good choices for child care by race/ethnicity and household income.
    • A higher percentage of White children had parents who had no difficulty finding the type of care they wanted, compared with Asian children and children of Two or more races.  
    • The percentage of children whose parents reported cost as the primary reason for difficulty in finding care was lower in households with incomes above $100,000 than in households with incomes below $100,000.
  • Among 3- to 4-year-olds in October 2021, school enrollment rates were higher for 3- to 4-year-olds who were White or Asian than for those who were Hispanic. 
  • In October 2021, the enrollment rates were higher for 3- to 4-year-olds whose parents had a bachelor’s or higher degree than for those whose parents had any level of attainment below an associate’s degree.
  • Among 3- to 4-year-olds, the enrollment rate was higher for children in households with an annual family income exceeding $100,000 than for those in households that earned less than $10,000, $20,000 to $29,999, $30,000 to $39,999, $50,000 to $74,999, and $75,000 to $99,999.

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1 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Monitoring Educational Equity (pp. 7-8). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

2 Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., and Barnett, W.S. (2010). Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Early Education Interventions on Cognitive and Social Development. Teachers College Record112(3), 579–620.

3 Duncan, G.J., and Magnuson, K. (2013). Investing in Preschool Programs. Journal of Economic Perspectives27(2): 109–132.

4 The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Monitoring Educational Equity framework refers to “high-quality” early learning programs. Because there are no national data currently available that address quality, this domain uses an indirect measure of parents’ perceptions of the availability of good choices for child care and early learning programs. However, it should be kept in mind that parents’ perceptions are influenced by their child’s specific care and education needs. For example, a parent who regularly works a night shift may indicate that he or she has good choices if care is routinely available overnight, irrespective of whether that care would be defined as high quality according to standardized measures of quality such as the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale.

5 This domain presents a compilation of data from various sources crossing several periods of time. Within each indicator, the term “gender” or “sex” is used as presented by the original data source at the time.

6 Not all equity dimensions, such as race/ethnicity, sex, socioeconomic status, English learner status, and disability status, are examined for all constructs.