President Biden’s American Families Plan proposes to offer high-quality universal pre-K (UPK) to all three- and four-year old children. To support a dramatic increase in the number of American children attending publicly-funded pre-K, the plan relies on expanding existing mixed-delivery systems that typically provide UPK slots in both public schools and community-based organizations. But community-based providers, which often serve more children of color and children from families with lower incomes, have been historically underinvested in compared to public school pre-K programs. Despite this underinvestment, working parents often prefer community-based programs because they operate year-round, offer before- and after-school care, and provide continuity in care from infancy through pre-K, among other reasons.

Building an equitable UPK system that provides high-quality experiences to all children will require investing greater resources in community-based pre-K programs. Here are a few ideas for how to make that happen:

Collect data to understand community-based programs’ strengths and areas for targeted investment. In building their UPK programs, states and districts should start by collecting data to understand what existing programs are already doing well and where stronger supports are needed. This is particularly true for the community-based pre-K providers that are currently less likely than public schools to participate in systematic data collection efforts. For example, national data from Head Start programs show that community-based providers already do just as well—and even outperform public schools—at providing students with warm, responsive, and supportive interactions with teachers. Community-based programs, however, tend to have lower levels of instructional quality, as measured with the widely-used Classroom Assessment Scoring System observation, than public school programs. Assessing pre-K program quality upfront can more effectively guide investments that align with community-based providers’ needs.

Read the full article about building universal pre-K by Meghan McCormick and Shira Kolnik Mattera at MDRC.