Early Learning: America's Middle Class Promise Begins Early

Early Learning: America's Middle Class Promise Begins Early

"If we make high-quality preschool available to every child, not only will we give our kids a safe place to learn and grow while their parents go to work; we'll give them the start that they need to succeed in school, and earn higher wages, and form more stable families of their own.

By the end of this decade, let's enroll 6 million children in high-quality preschool. That is an achievable goal that we know will make our workforce stronger."

-- 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. Across the country, 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.

Children in countries as diverse as Mexico, France, and Singapore have a better chance of receiving preschool education than do children in the United States. In fact, the U.S. ranks 25th in the world in early learning enrollment. For children in the United States who do attend, quality varies widely and access to high-quality programs is even more limited in low-income communities. Doing better is more than just a moral and educational imperative; it's smart government. Every public dollar spent on high-quality preschool returns $7 through a reduced need for spending on other services—such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education—as well as increased productivity and earnings for these children as adults.

The goal

High-quality early learning opportunities should be provided to all children in America so that they enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and in life. In partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is working to significantly expand and improve services for young children and their families.

The plan

The Obama administration has proposed investments that will establish a continuum of high-quality early learning for children beginning at birth and continuing to age five, including:

  • 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.
Early Learning Enrollment: The United States ranks 25th in the world in the enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning.
  • Preschool for All: This proposed program is a voluntary, federal-state partnership that would be administered by the Department of Education and would 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 would 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 would be fully paid for by raising federal tobacco taxes, which also would help to discourage youth smoking and save lives.To be eligible, states would have to demonstrate 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: These competitive grants lay the groundwork for states to be prepared for Preschool for All formula funding. These grants will help states build the fundamental components of a high-quality preschool system or expand proven early learning programs in partnership with local governments, local education agencies, and other providers. States awarded grants in 2014 have ambitious and achievable plans to expand high-quality preschool programs for additional children from low- to moderate-income families in high-need communities.

A close partnership with Health and Human Services

ED and HHS work together to support state-level innovation through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge program, which has funded more than one billion dollars to 20 states to develop and enhance coordinated early learning and development systems.

As we work to deliver on the promise of preschool for all, ED will collaborate closely with HHS to ensure that the expansion of high-quality preschool for 4-year olds is part of a cohesive and well-aligned system of early learning for children beginning with prenatal care and continuing through third grade.

Learn more

Early learning



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