The United States could build a universal preschool system in 30 years.

That’s according to NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research), which has come up with a two-part plan based on federal, state, and local government sharing costs.

“At its current pace and without federal government leadership, the United States won’t reach all children with free preschool before 2100,” NIEER Founder and Senior co-Director Steven Barnett says in a press release.

Currently, publicly-funded preschool in the United States serves only 1.8 million children, NIEER estimates. Most states, including Massachusetts, deploy their public funding to the mixed-delivery system of early education and care, which includes center-based programs, Head Start programs, and public school districts.

NIEER’s plan “calls on the federal government to match state and local-level investments in high-quality preschool for children under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This focus will expand high-quality preschool to 2.5 million more low-income 3- and 4-year-olds by 2040.

“Building on this foundation, state and local governments would be able to expand their preschool programs to reach all 3- and 4-year-olds by 2050 and achieve universal high-quality preschool in all 50 states.

“The cost-sharing plan would enable states to set high preschool quality standards, provide children full-day preschool 180 days a year, and support competitive salaries for well-qualified teachers.”

As the report explains, cost estimates are “based on an average cost per child of $12,500 to fund full-day (6 hours, 180 days) pre-K that meets all ten of NIEER’s Quality Standards Benchmarks and pays teaching staff on par with their K-12 peers.”

“The proposed federal and state/local partnership adds modest amounts of funding each year to allow the system time to build high quality. Low-income children are added first though state and local governments can of course move more quickly to serve all children regardless of income —as some already do—with their own resources.”

Planting seeds for this 30-year harvest should start now, when the pandemic has revealed both how important early education and care is and how vulnerable the system has been.

NIEER will, of course, help advocates stay the course by releasing tools and reports. It has already released three guides to support preschool expansion that cover:


Ensuring Adequate Resources for Expanding High Quality Pre-K

Creating and Supporting a Highly Qualified Workforce during Pre-K Expansion, and

Advocating for High-Quality Preschool


And on Monday, NIEER will release the 2020 edition of “The State of Preschool Yearbook.” Once it’s published, it will be available here.

The Yearbook will explore “how the COVID-19 pandemic threatens state-funded preschool programs and worsens inequality in access to high-quality preschool, and how the federal and state governments can work together to ensure every 3- and 4-year-old receives a high-quality, full-day preschool education,” NIEER explains in an email. 

The Yearbook will also address three questions:


• “How much progress has the nation and each state made toward high-quality pre-K for all?”

• “How has the pandemic impacted pre-K programs and policies?”

• “How should states and the federal government respond to current problems and long-term needs?”


As advocates and policymakers increasingly focus on for children birth through school age, it is important to keep preschool-age children (3- and 4-year-olds) in mind as a key and distinct age group. As NIEER has documented in its yearbook, preschool is a research-based public policy with substantial short- and long-term benefits for children. High-quality preschool programs also have a 20-year track record of success and slow but steady growth across the U.S.

Please share the NIEER resources with your networks. And please explain how much progress the country could make on preschool – with wise investments – over the course of a few decades.