Enriching Early Learning Experiences

Children are born learning, with rapid development occurring in their first few years of life. Research demonstrates that young children with enriching early learning 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.

Enriching early learning experiences are available in a variety of settings. Child care and public prekindergarten (pre-k) serve the largest number of young Texas children. For infants and toddlers specifically, one example of an effective model 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 are unable to 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. Unlike kindergarten, which is available to all Texas families, public pre-k in Texas has very narrow eligibility. It is primarily available to children from households with low incomes and children designated as emergent bilingual. Yet approximately 57,000 eligible four-year-olds and about 225,000 eligible three-year-olds are not enrolled in public pre-k, according to the Texas Education Agency.

As Texas leaders work to ensure more children benefit from enriching early learning experiences, better data are essential to inform their efforts to improve quality standards and scale up programs where availability is extremely limited.

Early Head Start Access

Early Head Start (EHS) provides child development and parent support services through home visits and child care settings to eligible low-income families with infants and toddlers as well as pregnant mothers. Research shows that EHS promotes strong social-emotional development and language development in children before they reach pre-k. However, there are only enough EHS slots available in the state to serve 5.8 percent of income-eligible Texas children. The U.S. average is notably higher, 9.6 percent, and Texas ranks 49th in the country in providing access to these enriching early learning programs.

Head Start Access

Head Start is a federally-funded program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and family support services to children age three to five from households with low incomes. Research shows that Head Start produces strong student outcomes for young learners, such as making progress in language, literacy, and math and demonstrating better social skills and cognitive development compared to children who did not attend Head Start. The program is successful due to its research-based curricula, assessment procedures that promote effective teaching practices, and engagement with the family. Unfortunately, there are only enough slots available in the state to serve 21.7 percent of income-eligible Texas children. Texas ranks 44th in the nation on this measure, exacerbated by the fact that Texas does not provide any state funding to increase access to Head Start.

Quality Child Care Access

High-quality child care helps working 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, high-quality child care has been a longstanding challenge for Texas families, a situation that only worsened during the pandemic.

Based on analysis from Children at Risk, more than eight in ten (83 percent) Texas children under age six in working families with low incomes live in a “child care desert.” That means they live in an area with insufficient access to child care that accepts financial assistance, known as scholarships or subsidies, making it very difficult for parents to find affordable child care in their community. To identify a zip code as a child care desert, this analysis considers the number of children under age six with working parents with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, this income threshold equates to an annual household income of $60,000. If the number of children in this category is at least three times greater than the number of children who can be served by licensed providers accepting child care subsidies in the zip code, then the community is defined as a child care desert.

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 reimbursements to programs that meet safety, quality, and education standards, such as manageable class sizes and enhanced educator training.

According to analysis from Children at Risk, more than 9 in 10 (94 percent) Texas children under age six in working families with low incomes live in a “quality desert,” where they have limited access to quality, TRS-rated child care providers that accept subsidies – meaning these children may miss out on the enriching early learning experiences they need. More specifically, these 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 programs that accept subsidies.

Public Pre-k Enrollment

Research shows that effective pre-k programs for three- and four-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.

Texas directly funds half-day pre-k for a limited population of mostly students from households with low incomes, emergent bilingual students, children of an active duty member of the U.S. armed forces, children experiencing homelessness, and children who have ever been in foster care. In 2019, the Texas Legislature required school districts to offer full-day pre-k for eligible four-year-olds and created the Early Education Allotment to help support full-day pre-k and other early literacy strategies. Notably, however, state pre-k funding is currently only allocated to school districts. Some states have opted to support a “mixed-delivery” pre-k system, which means funding is able to support high-quality pre-k in other settings, including Head Start programs and nonprofit child care centers.

Texas enrolls the highest number of pre-k students in the nation, serving more than 240,000 three- and four-year-old students. This enrollment includes approximately 74 percent of eligible four-year-olds statewide. A recent analysis by the Commit Partnership shows that enrollment rates of eligible children vary across the state. When considering all four-year-olds (not just those who meet eligibility criteria), only 52 percent are enrolled in public pre-k. The number is much smaller for three-year-olds. Only 11 percent of all Texas three-year-olds are enrolled in public pre-k. In addition to the eligibility criteria limiting enrollment, there are multiple reasons why families may not enroll their three- and four-year-olds in public pre-k. Some families simply may not be aware of the option. Other families may choose to keep their children at home, or enroll their children in a child care program or Head Start, because the limited hours of public pre-k (six hours per day) are incompatible with their work schedules, they prefer the model or location offered by a different program, or for other reasons.

All families of young children should have options that meet their needs, whether they want to enroll their child in a high-quality early learning program, rely on extended family or neighbors for child care, stay at home with their child until kindergarten, or some combination of these options. However, for children not enrolled in public pre-k, the reality is that families with higher incomes are often the ones with access to other high-quality early learning settings. Families with more modest incomes, on the other hand, have fewer options outside of public pre-k and often have to settle for less effective programs.

Policy Recommendations

Policymakers can make progress towards a future where early childhood education is high-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, thus reducing staff turnover and classroom vacancies. Learn more about the Dashboard’s policy recommendations to enhance enriching early learning experiences here