Children are born learning, with rapid development occurring in their first few years of life. Decades of research demonstrate that young children with enriching early learning and caregiving experiences are more likely to have the academic and social skills they need to be well-prepared for kindergarten. Early learning experiences build upon one another– when young children miss out on enriching early learning experiences, they may be less likely to succeed in kindergarten and meet later school benchmarks.
One example of an effective model for infants and toddlers is Early Head Start (EHS), which provides enriching early learning experiences for children through center and home-based programs; however, EHS only serves a small fraction of eligible children in need.
Unfortunately, too many families cannot find quality child care in their community, can’t afford the cost of care, or are eligible for financial assistance but remain on long waiting lists. The Texas public pre-k program is available principally to eligible low-income or emergent bilingual children, yet only 41 percent of Texas 4-year-olds and 7 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in full-day pre-k.
As Texas leaders work to ensure more children benefit from enriching early learning experiences, better data is essential to inform their efforts to improve quality standards and scale up programs where availability is extremely limited.
Early Head Start (EHS) provides child development and parent support services to eligible low-income families with infants and toddlers as well as pregnant mothers through home visits and child care settings. Research has shown that EHS promotes strong social-emotional development and language development in children before they reach pre-k. However, only 4.5 percent of eligible Texas children have access to EHS, based on the number of available slots. The U.S. average is significantly higher, 8 percent, and Texas ranks 49th in the country in providing access to these enriching early learning programs.
High-quality child care helps parents provide their children with opportunities to learn, socialize with classmates, eat healthy foods, and build new skills during this critical age for brain development. Finding affordable, quality child care has been a longstanding challenge for Texas families, a situation that only worsened during the pandemic.
Four in ten Texas children under age six in low-income working families live in an area with insufficient access to child care that accepts financial assistance, known as subsidies, meaning it is very difficult for parents to find child care in their community. Based on analysis from Children at Risk, an area with insufficient access to subsidized child care is a zip code where the number of children under age six with working parents with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level is at least three times greater than the number of children who can be served by licensed providers accepting child care subsidies. For a family of four, this equates to an annual household income of under $52,000.
To best support children’s school readiness, child care should be high-quality, including both structural features of the child care setting (e.g., the number of children per teacher, teacher training, etc.) and ensuring children have positive, stimulating interactions with caregivers. A key state strategy to enhance child care quality is Texas Rising Star (TRS) – the state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System – which offers higher ratings and higher reimbursement rates to programs that meet safety, quality, and education standards, such as manageable class sizes and enhanced educator training. However, nearly 9 in 10 Texas children under age six from low-income working families live in a “quality desert,” where they have limited access to quality, TRS-rated child care providers that accept subsidies – meaning these children likely miss out on the enriching early learning experiences they need.
Based on analysis from Children at Risk, these 9 in 10 children live in a zip code where the number of children under age six with working parents with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level is at least three times greater than the supply of Texas Rising Star certified child care that accepts subsidies.
Research shows that effective pre-k programs for 3- and 4-year-olds help children start kindergarten with strong early literacy, pre-math, and social skills, and over time, reduce both grade retention and the need for special education services.
Currently, Texas funds half-day pre-k for a limited population of primarily low-income students and designated emergent bilingual students. In 2019, the Texas Legislature required school districts to offer full-day pre-k for eligible 4-year-olds and created the Early Education Allotment to help support full-day pre-k and other early literacy strategies.
However, only 41 percent of 4-year-olds and only 7 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded full-day pre-k given the restrictive eligibility criteria, program hours (6 hours for full day) not meeting the needs of working parents and other challenges.
Policymakers can make progress towards a future where early childhood education is quality, affordable, and accessible to families. To accomplish this, they also must ensure that the educators who perform this essential work are compensated sufficiently to cover the rising cost of living and stay in the profession, reducing staff turnover and classroom vacancies. Learn more about the Dashboard’s policy recommendations to enhance enriching early learning experiences here.