While good elementary schools, high schools and colleges are important factors for parents to consider when choosing where to settle down, the availability of quality pre-K education is just as crucial. Unfortunately, pre-school enrollment dropped by nearly 300,000 students during the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts say erased a decade of progress and increased educational inequality. The good news is that the distribution of the vaccine has made the school environment safer to return to, as it is available to children as young as six months old now.
Children enrolled in early education programs are more likely to be academically prepared for future grades, as well as have higher graduation rates and higher earning potential than those who are not enrolled, according to the National Education Association. In addition, those who attend pre-K programs have been shown to have less risk of future crime than those who do not. Plus, one estimate shows that every dollar invested in early education programs for disadvantaged families may generate $7.30 in economic benefits due to its impact on helping children grow up to be healthier, higher-earning adults.
To help parents find the states with the best early education systems, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 12 key metrics, including share of school districts that offer a state pre-K program, number of pre-K quality benchmarks met and total reported spending per child enrolled in pre-K.
States with the Best & Worst Early Education Systems
Resources & Economic Support
|4||District of Columbia||68.00||1||19||26|
Note: With the exception of “Total Score,” all of the columns in the table above depict the relative rank of that state, where a rank of 1 represents the best conditions for that metric category.
- 1. District of Columbia
- 2. Vermont
- 3. Massachusetts
- 4. New Mexico
- 5. Oklahoma
- 47. New Hampshire
- 48. Indiana
- 49. Hawaii
- 50. Idaho
- 51. Nevada
- 1. North Carolina
- 2. Connecticut
- T-3. Nevada
- T-3. Arizona
- T-3. Arkansas
- T-3. Ohio
- T-30. Alabama
- T-30. Oklahoma
- T-30. New Mexico
- T-30. Alaska
- T-30. Vermont
- T-30. District of Columbia
- T-1. District of Columbia
- T-1. New Jersey
- T-1. Hawaii
- T-1. Oregon
- 5. Maryland
- T-46. New Hampshire
- T-46. Wyoming
- T-46. South Dakota
- T-46. Indiana
- T-46. Idaho
- T-46. Montana
- T-1. Oregon
- T-1. Alaska
- 3. Pennsylvania
- 4. Minnesota
- 5. Rhode Island
- T-12. Tennessee
- T-12. New Jersey
- T-12. Arizona
- T-12. Arkansas
- T-12. North Dakota
- T-12. California
- T-1. New York
- T-1. Alaska
- T-1. Oklahoma
- T-1. California
- T-1. Oregon
- T-1. Iowa
- T-46. New Hampshire
- T-46. Pennsylvania
- T-48. Kentucky
- T-48. Texas
- 50. North Carolina
- 51. Hawaii
Giving a child a good early education is something that can benefit them for their entire career as a student. For more insight into this vital developmental step, we consulted a panel of experts. Click on the experts below to read their bios and thoughts on the following key questions:
- What are the most important factors that influence a child’s educational development?
- Is education spending a direct measure of education quality?
- What can state and local policymakers do to improve their school systems without raising taxes?
- In evaluating the best and worst early education systems, what are the top 5 indicators?
Ask the Experts
In order to determine the best and worst states for early education systems, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across three key dimensions, “Access,” “Quality” and “Resources & Economic Support.”
We evaluated those dimensions using 12 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the highest quality of early education.
Finally, we determined each state and the District’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order our sample.
Access - Total Points: 40
- Share of School Districts that Offer State Pre-K Program: Full Weight (~5.71 Points)
- Share of 3- and 4-year-olds Enrolled in State Pre-K Program: Double Weight (~11.43 Points)
- Share of 3- and 4-year-olds Enrolled in Pre-K, Pre-K Special Education and Head Start Programs: Full Weight (~5.71 Points)
- Presence of Waiting Lists or Frozen Intake for Child Care Assistance: Double Weight (~11.43 Points)
Note: Even if families are eligible for child care assistance, they may not necessarily receive it. Instead, their state may place eligible families on a waiting list or freeze intake (turn away eligible families without adding their names to a waiting list). Families may remain on the waiting list for a long time before receiving child care assistance, or may never receive it.
- Pre-K Program Growth: Full Weight (~5.71 Points)
Quality - Total Points: 40
- Pre-K Quality Benchmarks Met: Full Weight (~10.00 Points)
Note: This metric considers the following benchmarks: 1) Early learning & development standards, 2) Curriculum supports, 3) Teacher has BA, 4) Specialized training in pre-K, 5) Assistant teacher has CDA or equivalent, 6) Staff professional development, 7) Class size 20 or lower, 8) Staff-child ratio 1:10 or better, 9) Vision, hearing, & health screening & referral, 10) Continuous quality improvement system.
- Income Requirement for State Pre-K Eligibility: Full Weight (~10.00 Points)
- Requirement of School Safety Plans & Audits: Double Weight (~20.00 Points)
Note: This composite metric measures whether school safety plans or school safety audits are required in a state.
Resources & Economic Support - Total Points: 20
- Total Reported Spending per Child Enrolled in Preschool: Double Weight (~5.00 Points)
Note: Amount of all reported funds (local, state, and federal) spent per child participating in pre-K program.
- Change in State Spending per Child Enrolled in Preschool (2018-19 to 2019-20): Triple Weight (~7.50 Points)
- Total State Head Start Program Spending per Child Enrolled in Preschool: Double Weight (~5.00 Points)
- Monthly Child Care Co-Payment Fees as Share of Family Income: Full Weight (~2.50 Points)
Note: Parent co-payments for a family of three with an income at 100 percent of poverty and one child in care.
Sources: Data used to create this ranking were collected from the National Institute for Early Education Research, Education Commission of the States and The National Women’s Law Center.