Counting Kids and Tracking Funds in Pre-K and Kindergarten: Falling Short at the Local Level

Lisa Guernsey, Alex Holt
September 20, 2012

This issue brief, produced by the New America Foundation's Early Education Initiative, addresses the dearth of reliable, complete, and comparable data on pre-K and kindergarten in school districts and local communities. The Early Education Initiative, in partnership with the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP), expanded the FEBP database to include data on publicly-funded pre-K at the state and school district levels. This brief pinpoints problems of incomplete data at the local level and explains why, in many cases, the data that do exist cannot be accurately compared to data in other districts or states. 

Even as the availability of data on K-12 education programs has exploded over the past decade, the American education system suffers from an acute lack of some of the most basic information about publicly funded programs for young children. Although, for example, pre-K often comprises significant investments by state and federal governments, in many localities it is difficult to determine how many children receive publicly funded pre-K services or to make fair comparisons between local programs. Kindergarten is also saddled with a lack of information and with data that are incomparable across states and school districts. 

Within pre-K and kindergarten alike, poor data can lead to poor policies. City leaders, school board members, superintendents, and elementary school principals often have no idea how many three- and four-year-old children in their districts’ borders are enrolled in publicly-funded pre-K programs, let alone whether these children are prepared for kindergarten. State policymakers cannot make sound comparisons between districts or shine light on disparities in access in low-income areas. Nor can they easily determine how many schools in their states offer only a half-day of kindergarten – a critical question as teachers across dozens of states will soon be held accountable for whether their students meet new benchmarks in kindergarten, such as those in the Common Core State Standards.

Researchers and policy analysts have documented the challenges in collecting pre-K and other early childhood data, and reports on disparities in full-day kindergarten from the Education Commission of the States and the Children’s Defense Fund place the disorganized state of kindergarten data on full display. But in both cases, organizations have focused on data at the state level. This brief discusses the steps that states, districts, and policymakers should take to repair these holes at the district level and ensure that PreK-12 policymakers and the public have a well-informed view of the state of pre-K and kindergarten in their states and localities.

This content was originally published by the New America Foundation. The summary is reprinted here with permission.