Pre-K Matters

Children are the key to our community’s economic future.

The well-being of today’s children affects the future vitality of our community. Young children who enjoy positive early experiences are better able to develop the skills that prepare them for school. Children who arrive at kindergarten prepared to learn perform better throughout school and complete more years of education. A more educated workforce, in turn, means higher incomes, more public revenues, and less poverty and crime – in other words, a thriving city that attracts business and jobs.

In short, providing high quality early learning experiences – including pre-kindergarten – helps families prepare their children to achieve and succeed. Investing in high-quality, publicly funded universal pre-kindergarten is essential to building a prosperous future for Memphis and Shelby County.

What is universal pre-kindergarten?

Pre-kindergarten refers to programs that provide a year of education prior to entry into kindergarten. Publicly funded pre-kindergarten (or Pre-K) is typically administered by states. The majority of these programs are based in public schools, although some states, like Tennessee, partner with a range of public and private agencies to provide pre-kindergarten services. States fund Pre-K in a variety of ways, including general funds, public-private partnerships, and special revenues like lotteries or taxes on tobacco.1,2

Universal programs are voluntary state programs that are open to all age-eligible children regardless of family income. So far, only a few states have universal eligibility for four-year-olds. Out of 51 state-funded Pre-K programs in 39 states, only eight are universal. The remaining 31 are targeted to at-risk children (usually based on low family income). Given the growing recognition that pre-kindergarten makes a tremendous difference in the lives of children, more and more states are working to expand the number of children served by their Pre-K programs.3

Research demonstrates that universal access to Pre-K is good policy. It reduces outreach costs, raises program quality, and increases public support for early education. Compared to targeted programs, universal programs have higher rates of enrollment among all socioeconomic groups.4

Why does Pre-Kindergarten make such a difference?

Brain development in the years prior to school entry builds the foundation for success in school, at work, and throughout life. When children arrive at kindergarten without a solid foundation of skills, they are likely to fall behind their classmates, and with each year it will become harder to catch up.5,6

School readiness is a good predictor of long-term achievement. School readiness refers to the development of the cognitive, behavioral, and social skills that help a child to make a smooth transition into formal schooling and enable him to perform at the appropriate level. The research suggests that there are four key dimensions of readiness:

  • Language and literacy: Children learn about language by listening to words. A growing vocabulary strengthens a child's readiness for reading.
  • Thinking skills: Children are natural scientists and their first experiments teach them about the world and help them get ready for math and science.
  • Self-control: A child who is socialized to solve problems through words, take turns, and pay attention is ready to be a good classroom citizen.
  • Self-confidence: Confident children are ready to learn. They follow their curiosity and are quick to recover from mistakes.

When these four foundations are strong, a child is ready to thrive in kindergarten and beyond.

Currently, less than 50 percent of all new kindergarteners in Shelby County are meeting school readiness benchmarks.7

What are the benefits of Pre-K?

Research shows that Pre-K programs are typically of higher quality than other preschools or center-based programs and that Pre-K children are better prepared for school.1,8

For states that have already implemented universal Pre-K, the results have been impressive. Studies of Oklahoma’s Pre-K program find significant effects on test scores, language development, and motor skills at kindergarten entry.These early gains were still detectable in 3rd grade.10 An evaluation of Georgia’s Pre-K program found that participants had stronger cognitive and language skills in kindergarten than children who did not attend.11

The benefits of Pre-K are not limited to test scores. Children who receive high-quality Pre-K have better attendance, fewer behavior problems, and increased chances of reading at grade level in 4th grade.11,12 

Tennessee’s targeted Pre-K program has been shown to boost school readiness. An ongoing independent evaluation has found that during the year before kindergarten, Pre-K children develop literacy, language, and math skills faster than non-participating children. Gains made by Pre-K children are 37 to 176 percent greater than those of non-Pre-K children and persist into the elementary grades. When they begin kindergarten, Pre-K children are rated more highly than their peers on teachers’ assessments of school readiness.13,14

Only 1/3 of our community’s four-year-olds are enrolled in Pre-K

  • Census data indicate that there are 13,086 four-year-olds in Shelby County.15
  • Memphis City Schools Pre-K currently serves 4,100.16
  • Shelby County Schools Pre- K serves an additional 280.16

How much will it cost to provide universal access to Pre-K?

Research shows that in communities with universal Pre-K, about 2/3 of children will enroll, with the remaining 1/3 in other types of care (at home or in private centers, for example). Providing universal eligibility for four-year-olds in Shelby County means serving about 4,500 more children.3

The current cost of one year of high quality Pre-K is estimated to be $6,000 per pupil.4,17 To serve 4,500 new students, then, another $27 million in funding will be necessary.

Is universal Pre-K a good investment?

The gains in school readiness by students receiving high quality Pre-K are substantial and produce high returns across the board. But because rigorous studies of state Pre-K programs are difficult and expensive to carry out, there is only limited evidence for predicting exact returns.18

A recent cost-benefit study projects the approximate long-term economic benefits of Georgia Pre-K once it reaches 82 percent of the state’s four-year-olds (the level of enrollment chosen by the study’s authors to represent truly universal access):

  • Savings related to juvenile justice, welfare, and education would exceed the annual cost of funding state Pre-K by the year 2030.
  • Within about 40 years, the study predicts that for every dollar spent by Georgia for Pre-K, the state government would receive $1.59 in savings and added tax revenues.
  • Total savings to citizens and to local, state, and federal governments would produce a return of $5.12 for every $1 invested.19

A similar set of projections were carried out for Pre-K in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This study considered only one outcome--the program’s expected effects on adult earnings.

  • The study predicts returns of 3 to 4 dollars for every dollar spent on Pre-K.
  • Because Pre-K has other benefits as well, the study suggests that the actual return is likely to be even higher.20

Universal access to Pre-K is vital for the future of our community.

A community with high levels of educational attainment is a community that is less vulnerable to poverty, unemployment, and crime. Reduced need for public spending on remedial education, criminal justice, and social support programs are key reasons why universal Pre-K is such a sensible investment.

To reap these benefits, however, Pre-K programs must be well-designed and well-funded. Research consistently highlights the importance of maintaining high quality.17,21 To ensure that Pre-K is effective, it must include an emphasis on high standards regarding teacher qualifications, small class size, research-based curriculum, and family involvement.

Finally, our expectations should be realistic. Even the highest quality Pre-Kindergarten program cannot cure all of the problems faced by children. Unfortunately, many claims about Pre-K’s effectiveness are based on a few studies of carefully designed, comprehensive interventions that are not comparable to universal Pre-K programs. In reality, Pre-K is unlikely to demonstrate the same results as these smaller-scale programs, which provided more services for a longer period of time. On the other hand, the benefits of Pre-K will reach more children.2,22

Universal Pre-Kindergarten is an essential step toward preparing our community’s children to succeed in school and in life. As the research shows, investment in high quality universal Pre-Kindergarten can yield high returns. When we can spend less money trying to fix problems that have already taken root, we will have more resources for creating positive change in Memphis and Shelby County.

Pre-K for all our community’s four-year-olds is an investment that can’t wait.

  1. Barnett WS. Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit.2008. Available at:
  2. Magnuson K, Meyers M, Ruhm C, Waldfogel J. Inequality in Preschool Education and School Readiness, American Educational Research Journal. 2004; 41: 115-157.
  3. Barnett WS, Carolan ME, Fitzgerald J, et al. The state of preschool 2011: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research;2011.
  4. Barnett WS. Universal and targeted approaches to preschool education in the United States. International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy. 2010; 4(1): 1-12.
  5. Duncan GJ, Claessens A, Huston AC, et al. School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology. 2007; 43(6): 1428-1446.
  6. Fox SE, Levitt P, Nelson CA. How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child Development. 2010; 81(1): 28-40.
  7. The Urban Child Institute. Kindergarten Readiness and the Future of Shelby County. 2012. Available at:
  8. Magnuson K, Ruhm C, Waldfogel J. Does prekindergarten improve school preparation and performance? Economics of Education Review. 2007; 26: 33-51.
  9. Gormley WT, Gayer T. Promoting School Readiness in Oklahoma: An Evaluation of Tulsa’s Pre-K Program. Journal of Human Resources. 2005; 533-558.
  10. Hill CJ, Gormley WT, Adelstein S, et al. The Effects of Oklahoma’s Pre-Kindergarten Program on 3rd Grade Test Scores. Georgetown University: Center for Research on Children in the U.S. Available at:
  11. Henry GT. Early education policy alternatives: Comparing quality and outcomes of Head Start and state prekindergarten. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis. 2006; 28(1): 77-99.
  12. Gormley WT, Phillips DA, Newmark K, et al. Social-Emotional Effects of Early Childhood Education Programs in Tulsa. Child Development. 2011; 82(6): 2095–2109.
  13. Lipsey MW, et al. Initial results of the evaluation of the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K Program. Peabody Research Institute, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. 2011. Available at:
  14. Strategic Research Group. 2008. Assessing the Effectiveness of Tennessee’s Pre-Kindergarten Program: Second Interim Report. Report for TN Comptroller’s Office.  Available at:
  15. U.S. Census Bureau. 2006-2010 American Community Survey. Table B14003.
  16. Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. 2012. Unpublished data.
  17. Gault B, Mitchell AW, Williams E. Meaningful investments in pre-k: Estimating the per-child costs of quality programs. Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Available at:
  18. Camilli G, Vargas S, Ryan S, et al. Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record. 2010; 112(3): 579-620.
  19. Suitts S, et al. The promise of Georgia Pre-K. Southern Education Foundation, 2011. Available at:
  20. Bartik TJ, Gormley WT, Adelstein S. Earnings benefits of Tulsa's pre-K program for different income groups. Economics of Education Review. 2012; 31(6): 1143-1161.
  21. Barnett WS, Hustedt JT. Improving public financing for early learning programs.Preschool Policy Brief Issue 23. 2011. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research. Available at:
  22. Reynolds AJ, Temple JA. Cost-effective early childhood development programs from preschool to third grade. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 2008; 4:109-139.