Early Learning

Early Learning: America's Middle Class Promise Begins Early

"I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. ... Let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance."

-- President Barack Obama

The foundation of a thriving middle class is access to a strong education for every child beginning in the first few years of life. Sadly, millions of children in this country are cut off from quality early learning. The Obama administration is committed to closing this opportunity gap by working with states and local communities to expand high-quality early education programs for our nation's children.

The need

There is a tremendous unmet need for high-quality early learning throughout the country. Today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. 1 Yet, the importance of early learning is clear. Studies prove that children who have rich early learning experiences are better prepared to thrive in kindergarten and beyond. [expand/collapse]

The goal

The goal is to provide high-quality early learning opportunities to all children in America so that they enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and in life. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Department of Education will work to significantly expand and improve services for young children and their families.

The plan

The Obama administration has proposed new investments that will establish a continuum of high-quality early learning for children beginning at birth and continuing to age five. The President's proposal includes:

  • Providing access to high-quality infant and toddler care through Early Head Start-child care partnerships;
  • Expanding voluntary evidence-based home visiting to support our country's most vulnerable families; and
  • Developing a new partnership with states to provide voluntary, high-quality, full-day preschool for all 4-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

The down payment

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 included a down payment on the President's vision to expand early childhood education. The legislation restored much of the cuts to early learning programs as a result of sequestration, and provided new funding to HHS for Early Head Start programs to partner with local child care providers to serve more low-income infants and toddlers in high-quality programs. In addition, funding was provided through the Department of Education's Race to the Top program for Preschool Development Grants to states to develop, enhance, or expand access to high-quality preschool programs for children from low- and moderate-income families.

Early Learning Enrollment: The United States ranks 25th in the world in the enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning.

The President's Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Proposal

To ensure every child in America has access to high-quality early learning opportunities, the Obama administration has proposed new investments that build upon the progress of states and communities. Key elements of the 2015 budget include:

  • Preschool for All ($1.3 billion in mandatory funds, as part of a 10-year, $75 billion commitment): This new voluntary preschool federal-state partnership administered by the Department of Education will build upon and strengthen existing state systems to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds with high-quality, publicly-funded preschool. Funded jointly by states and the federal government, the program also will promote access to full-day kindergarten and encourage the expansion of high-quality programs to include children from middle-class families and children under four. The federal funding over 10 years is $75 billion. It is fully paid for by raising federal tobacco taxes, which also will help to discourage youth smoking and save lives. Preschool for All-eligible states must have high-quality program standards, the ability to link preschool data with K-12 data, and early learning and development standards that aim to ensure children leave preschool ready for success in kindergarten. See the early learning fact sheets for more.

    Funds would be allocated to states and then distributed to local entities—which may include school districts, Head Start programs, or licensed child care providers to deliver high-quality preschool services. States would be required to provide matching funds and must meet certain criteria, such as high-quality preschool standards. The federal government would assume a higher share of the overall program costs in the initial years, with states gradually assuming more responsibility over time.

  • Preschool Development Grants ($500 million): The President is proposing $500 million—double last year's funding—for Preschool Development Grants. An additional $250 million would be provided through the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative, for a total discretionary investment of $750 million. These grants will help states, local education agencies, and local governments build the fundamental components of a high-quality preschool system or expand proven early learning programs. To be eligible for funding, prospective grantees must describe how they will expand access to children from low- to moderate-income families, ensure an adequate supply of high-quality preschool slots and qualified teachers, monitor for continuous improvement, partner with local education agencies and other providers, and sustain high-quality services after the grant period. These competitive grants will lay the groundwork for states to be eligible for Preschool for All funding.

A close partnership with Health and Human Services

This additional funding builds on a close partnership between the Departments of Education and HHS. The two departments have worked together to support state-level innovation through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge program, which has funded 20 states to develop and enhance coordinated early learning and development systems.[expand/collapse]

Learn more

Early learning: Frequently asked questions



1 National Center for Education Statistics. (December 2010). Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort, Longitudinal 9-month–Kindergarten Restricted-Use Data File. Washington, DC.

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