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State-funded Prekindergarten


The term “state-funded prekindergarten program” refers to specific state funding that is allocated to programs serving four-year-olds (and sometimes three-year-olds) that meet state prekindergarten standards. These standards for programs, which may go hand in hand with early learning guidelines, are higher than the state’s child care licensing regulations.

At the state and local levels, advocates have used prekindergarten as a lever to improve the quality of child care by allowing child care providers who meet the higher standards to be eligible for the state funds. All but two of the state-funded pre-k programs (Florida and Hawaii) consist of direct payments to programs. Florida’s and Hawaii’s state-funded pre-k programs use a voucher system. Two states, New Jersey and South Carolina, are required by court order from school finance equity litigation to provide prekindergarten to disadvantaged children. Only three states are providing universally available prekindergarten: Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma. In all states, enrollment in prekindergarten is voluntary for the families, and participation from non-school providers is voluntary.

States are currently spending an aggregate of close to $3 billion on prekindergarten. In comparison, the federal government spends $6.7 billion on Early Head Start and Head Start. All programs - except for those in Georgia, Oklahoma, Florida and Wisconsin - are targeted to low- income families, children with disabilities or children with other factors that states deem make them at risk of school failure. Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma are commonly considered to be the only states that have universally available, voluntary pre-k programs. For the 2004-2005 school year, Georgia’s pre-k program enrolled 67% of its four-year-olds and Oklahoma’s pre-k program enrolled 68% of its four-year-olds. For the 2005-2006 school year, Florida’s pre-k program enrolled 64% of the state’s four-year-olds.

State-funded prekindergarten programs are focused on academic preparation for kindergarten. Some do require additional services, such as nutrition, health screening, and parent involvement. Seventeen state programs are a state funding supplement to Head Start, but only two states (Oregon and Delaware) require programs receiving the state funding to meet the Head Start Program Performance Standards.

Most states pay for a 2.5 hour a day program, although some pay for 4 or 6 hours – making state-funded prekindergarten programs free to parents for at least part of the day. Many programs must be creative in collaborating and blending funding with Head Start and CCDBG in order to provide wraparound services to meet the needs of working families. Some states - such as Louisiana, Ohio, and Massachusetts – have used TANF funds to supplement state funding for their prekindergarten programs. Six state prekindergarten programs (Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Missouri), and one state grant program that can fund prekindergarten services (Maryland) require that center- and school-based programs be NAEYC-accredited to receive funding (some of these states allow center-and school-based programs to be accredited by a state accreditation entity in lieu of NAEYC accreditation).


For the 45 states (including DC) that have an investment in their prekindergarten program, funding comes from a variety of sources including: state general revenue, lottery funds, a tobacco fund, and sin taxes.

Categories of funding sources for pre-k (including state supplement to Head Start)
State general revenue - Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri (in addition to gambling revenue), Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin

Sin Tax - Arkansas (beer tax), California (Proposition 10 – cigarette tax. Proposition 82, which voters rejected on the June 2006 ballot, would have placed a 1.7 % tax on individuals with incomes over $400,000 to generate more than $2 billion annually.)

Lottery Funds - Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee

Delivery of prekindergarten and flow of funds

Once state funding is secured, there are various ways for the money to flow to the local level – directly to local school districts, directly to local school districts who can subcontract with community providers, directly to local districts and/or community providers, or to entities at the county level. In 23 states, any provider who meets the prekindergarten standards is eligible to receive prekindergarten funding. These states are: AL, AR, CA, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, IL, IA1, MA, MI2, MO, NV, NJ3, NM, NC, OR, RI4, SC5, TN, VT, WA6.

  • Funding flows from state directly to local school district level - District of Columbia, Louisiana, Kansas, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania
  • Funding flows from state to local school districts who can subcontract with community providers - Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin
  • Funding flows from state directly to local school districts and community providers - Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington
  • Funding flows from state to county entities (or local councils) that subcontract with local school districts and community providers - Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina

*In Alaska, Idaho, New Hampshire, North Dakota state funding is used to supplement the federal Head Start allocation.

State prekindergarten governance

States have approached the state-level governance of their prekindergarten programs in different ways, although the state department of education is the oversight agency for the state funds and prekindergarten standards in the majority of states.

State Department of Education:

Other than State Department of Education:

Joint Agency Collaboration:

Standards/Teacher Qualifications

Generally, state prekindergarten program standards are higher than state child care licensing standards. As advocates work to use prekindergarten as a lever for increasing quality in child care programs, they have supported enhancement grants and other resources to help child care programs meet the higher prekindergarten standards and become eligible for state prekindergarten funds.

Ratios: 1:10 or lower in 34 states

Class Size: 32 require no more than 20 children

Teacher Qualifications: 27 require a Bachelor's degree and specialized training in ECE; 3 additional states require a Bachelor's but do not require specialized training in ECE

Comprehensive Early Learning Standards8: 22 states have comprehensive early learning standards

Comprehensive Services9: 27 states provide vision, hearing, and health screening and referrals and at least one support service


When thinking about the scope of prekindergarten programs, it is interesting to note that the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found that as state investment in prekindergarten has risen, so has enrollment in these programs – meaning that per-child spending for prekindergarten is probably on a downward trend. This means that it is becoming harder and harder for states to fully fund the expansion of the number of children served while at the same time supporting the higher program standards that prekindergarten demands. In fact, in the 2004-2005 year, only 2 states, New Jersey and Oregon, spent at least as much per child as Head Start10.

Regardless of this trend, state-funded prekindergarten programs have provided an array of opportunities – from enhancement grants to early childhood programs to reach higher standards, to increased professional development opportunities for prekindergarten teachers, to positive child outcomes that have been shown in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s prekindergarten program for children across ethnicities and socio-economic levels. There are additional challenges to consider, however, regarding state-funded prekindergarten programs:

The Issue of Accountability
As more state funding is directed to state prekindergarten, the issue of accountability comes to the forefront. Whether greater accountability will come in the form of child assessment outcomes similar to No Child Left Behind or some other manner is still to be seen. One fear is that states will use high-stakes child assessments for funding or defunding of programs – as is the case for Florida’s prekindergarten program. When a child enters kindergarten, he is given an assessment and the score on this assessment is tied back to the program that the child attended for prekindergarten. If 85 percent or more of the children in a given prekindergarten program do not meet the state’s school readiness rate for two consecutive years, then the program is placed under corrective action and must use curricula from a state-approved list. If the program is on probation for two consecutive years, it will lose state prekindergarten funding. It should be noted that with this heavy emphasis on child outcomes, the state is paying programs $2560/child for the 2006-2007 year and only requires a CDA (or a CDA equivalent) for classroom teachers in community settings.

Impact on Child Care and Head Start
Another key challenge and opportunity is coordination among state prekindergarten, Head Start and child care. The reality of pre-k programs is that the state typically pays for a part-day program – at the least 2.5 hours, at the most 6 hours. The reality of most working families is that they may need at least 10 hours of care per day. This makes collaboration between pre-k, child care, and Head Start essential. However, the individual communities where pre-k programs are located bring their own baggage – it has been found in certain states that if a school district is not mandated to collaborate with Head Start and child care, it may choose not to do so. Community providers have also faced an array of barriers when trying to provide prekindergarten services – ranging from not having enough time to set up a classroom because of the short time period between pre-k funding being secured at the state level (usually by July 1st) and the start of the pre-k year (usually early to mid-September) to technical assistance on applying for pre-k funding and maneuvering the state bureaucracy being hard for providers to access.

Impact on Funding for Infants and Toddlers
The impact of funneling additional state dollars into services primarily for four-year-olds in the midst of tight state budgets is an issue that has been discussed at the state and national level, as well. The major question heard in many states and communities is: What does this mean for infants and toddlers? Only one state, Illinois, has an earmark for infant-toddler care as part of the block grant that funds pre-k.

Such an earmark has not become a trend across states – and the reality is that decisionmakers – primarily governors and state legislators, are forced to look not at the early care and education system as a whole, but rather as separate and distinct pieces that need to compete for limited resources. For example, in North Carolina, funding for Smart Start has decreased while funding for More at Four has increased. Waiting lists for child care subsidies have continued to grow and state dollars have not been funneled into child care subsidies and Head Start supplements to provide wraparound care for children in state prekindergarten to meet the working day needs of their families and for the summer months.

Impact on Special Populations
The inclusion of special populations, such as children with special needs and English language learners, warrants attention. While there is specific federal and state funding for prekindergarten for children with disabilities, the pool of preschool teachers and trained aides with a background in special education is not growing at a fast rate.

Some prekindergarten programs set being an English language learner as a risk factor that prioritizes a child for a pre-k slot. However, there is a question about the capacity of these programs to meet the needs of ELLs. Many states do not have the capacity within their institutions of higher learning to provide the necessary coursework to raise teacher qualifications. Raising teacher qualifications for bilingual teachers and supporting their professional development is an even greater challenge for states, as is creating culturally and developmentally appropriate materials and assessments in languages other than English.

There are also bigger questions about state prekindergarten programs that remain, such as: Which type of prekindergarten program will bring about optimal outcomes for children - universal or targeted?; Is it primarily the states’ or the federal government’s role to support and expand prekindergarten efforts?

State Examples

As has been previously mentioned, state-funded prekindergarten programs can be delivered in a variety of settings and funding may flow to the local level in a variety of ways. Below are four examples of how prekindergarten can play out in the states. Louisiana’s program is public school-based and uses a combination of state and federal funds. New York’s “universal” prekindergarten mandates that a certain percentage of community providers receive funding. North Carolina’s prekindergarten program is funded through local Smart Start councils. Oklahoma’s universal prekindergarten program is funded through the school funding formula, and school districts can contract with community providers.

In the 2001 legislative session, Senate Bill 776 passed, establishing a statewide prekindergarten program, LA4, to serve any four-year-old child who is not currently enrolled in publicly funded prekindergarten classes. Children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch receive prekindergarten services free of charge. Tuition may be charged for any child who is not eligible for free or reduced lunch. Local school districts apply directly to the Department of Education for funding.

LA4 includes before and after enrichment activities for four-year-olds. These programs cannot operate for less than ten hours per day for each day of the regular school session and include six hours of developmentally appropriate education/instructional services and four hours of high quality enrichment activities. There were approximately 7,144 four-year-olds being served by LA4 for the 2004-2005 school year. Funding for LA4 for FY05 was $35 million. The program was funded almost equally with state and TANF dollars.

New York11
In April 1997, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver proposed the LADDER legislation as part of an education reform package that included phased-in funding for the Universal Prekindergarten program for four year olds, a reduced class size program for Kindergarten through grade three, and additional full-day kindergarten classes. In August of that same year, the LADDER proposal became part of the approved budget agreement.

LADDER mandated a four-year phased-in spending and implementation schedule that started with the 1998-99 school year and required that each school district that was interested in offering pre-kindergarten conduct a local planning process, create an advisory board to assist in the planning, and hold at least one public hearing or meeting. The recommendations from this planning process were then presented to local school boards, who made the ultimate implementation decision.

The state pays for a half-day program – 2.5 hours, 5 days per week for the equivalent of 180 days of instruction. School districts are required to set-aside a minimum of 10% of its Universal Prekindergarten grant to use for collaboration with eligible agencies and approximately 60% of Universal Prekindergarten funds are in community-based settings. In the 2004-2005 school year, 29% of districts had launched prekindergarten programs.

Universal Prekindergarten is administered through the Office of Child, Family and Community Services of the State Education Department and funding flows from the state to local school districts. The program reached 55,461 four-year-olds and was funded at $198M for FY05.

North Carolina
Governor Mike Easley created More at Four by Executive Order in 2001 as a voluntary prekindergarten pilot program for at-risk four-year-olds. The program was designed to coordinate with Smart Start (an initiative for children ages Birth-5 that provides funding to counties to be spent in locally determined areas of greatest need), child care assistance to families, public school pre-kindergarten, and Head Start. The program is currently available statewide to all counties that choose to participate.

Funds are made available by contract to counties implementing the program and the number of child care slots allocated to each county is determined by the percentage of low-income students. At least 80% of the families of children participating in More at Four must have incomes at or below 75% of the state median income. The families of the remaining 20% of children participating in the program can have incomes of up to 300% of the federal poverty level if these children have one of four risk factors. More at Four also requires a local funding contribution (the program provides about half the cost of services) and this contribution can come from state, local or federal sources and city or county appropriations.

In order to receive More at Four funding, county planning committees (chaired by the local School Superintendent and local Smart Start partnership board chair) are required to develop a plan and to designate the local administrative agency for More at Four (usually the public schools or the local Smart Start partnership). The administrative agency can then contract with districts and community providers for More at Four slots. The state pays for a 2.5 hour day for a 10-month school calendar year at no cost to families of children served.

More at Four served 12,167 four-year-olds and was funded at $49M for FY05.

In 1998, legislation enabled school districts to receive funding to provide prekindergarten for all four-year-olds regardless of income. Participating school districts receive funding to offer either a full-day program (minimum of 6 hours) or a half-day program (minimum of 2.5 hours). Weights are assigned through the state aid funding formula with full-day programs weighted at 1.3 and half-day programs weighted at .7. The program is voluntary both on the part of the school districts offering the program and on the part of the families in choosing to enroll their children.

Two key provisions in the legislation stated that: any teacher employed by a public school to teach in a prekindergarten program be certified in early childhood education; and collaboration among Head Start and child care be encouraged, allowing school districts to contract for classroom space with a licensed public or private child care provider based upon selection criteria established by the district.

A local school district may contract with a community provider to base a certified teacher with a Bachelor’s degree in the program. This contract is negotiated at the local level and such contracts have included details such as: the district pays for a certified teacher for a prekindergarten classroom in a child care program; the district provides administrative support to the teacher; the district assigns an administrator to evaluate the teacher; the teacher follows the district calendar and work schedule during the instructional portion of the day; the teacher provided by the district is required to comply with the same professional development requirements as all other district teachers; the district provides the curriculum and teacher guides and will provide funding for educational materials, books, curriculum and resources.

Oklahoma’s universal prekindergarten reached 31,712 four-year-olds in the 2004-2005 school year. The program was funded at $79.8M.

Additional Resources

For more information on state funded prekindergarten programs visit:
State Legislative Trends and Policies Page on NAEYC’s website

The National Prekindergarten Center (NPC) at FPG Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute

NPC has developed a pre-k policy framework to help local, state, and federal leaders develop and implement high quality prekindergarten programs. The online tool provides: a selection of topics covering the components of high-quality prekindergarten programs; summaries of current prekindergarten research; examples of state programs with links to state prekindergarten websites; and bibliographies and web resources on each topic.

National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) The State of Preschool: 2005 State Preschool Yearbook

The State Preschool Yearbook provides information on state-funded prekindergarten programs. The State Preschool Yearbook describes state-funded prekindergarten programs in the 2004–2005 school year and compares four years of state pre-k data. Data is collected from a survey of the states and information is presented on three key characteristics of prekindergarten programs: access, quality standards, and resources.

“The Effects of Universal Pre-K on Cognitive Development” by
William T. Gormley Jr., Ted Gayer, Deborah Phillips, and Brittany Dawson

This article reports on the cognitive outcomes of children who attended the universal prekindergarten program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the 2002–2003 school year. The study looked at children in full-day and half-day programs and found that Latino, black, white, and Native American children all benefit from the program, as do children in diverse income brackets. The authors conclude that Oklahoma’s universal prekindergarten program has succeeded in enhancing the school readiness of a diverse group of children.

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