Child Care

This Map Shows The States With The Best — And Worst — Early Childhood Education Programs

Not all states put the same importance on access to early childhood education programs, and it shows.

Originally Published: 
classroom of a daycare center without children and teacher

Where parents live can have a major effect on how much access they have to quality early childhood education programs, how affordable they are, and how much they offer to the young, growing minds of children. There’s no question that pandemic disruptions to early childhood education and daycare programs have led to industry-wide issues — and for parents who are trying to navigate a patchwork of programs, the stress can be intense.

For parents who wonder how their states stack up compared to others, WalletHub determined the best states for early childhood education programs and what states are the worst.

First things first: According to WalletHub, preschool enrollment dropped by nearly 300,000 students during the 2020-21 school year, "which experts say erased a decade of progress and increased educational inequality."

Research shows that 3 and 4-year-olds belong in preschool. Kids who go to preschool or enroll in early childhood education programs are more likely to finish high school, go to college, and outperform their peers on tests in the short term. The U.S. saves about $10 for every $1 spent on preschool education. In other words, pre-K works.

Other studies suggest early education programs help by offering health benefits to kids, such as meals, immunizations, and health services that screen for vision and hearing problems, among other health conditions.

Still, early education programs are not the same across the country, as there is very little by way of federal funding for the programs. Although there is some funding, there’s not nearly enough to make the industry — which is defined by high operating costs and razor-thin profit margins — affordable for many American parents.

A universal child care and pre-K program was proposed as part of President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Plan. The program would have poured millions and millions of dollars into child care centers, pre-K programs, and workers, and it would have capped costs for parents. However, that plan was struck down.

Because there's no major federal plan, some states put more importance (aka money) on these programs than others. So, WalletHub wanted to find out how each state fares against the others.

To rank the states, WalletHub compared all 50 states plus the District of Columbia using three key dimensions: Access, which included the share of school districts that offer state pre-K programs, the number of eligible kids enrolled, and how prevalent waiting lists are, for example. Quality was also considered — income requirements for state pre-K eligibility, school safety plans, and audits, among other factors. The third metric was resources & economic support, which included how much was spent per child enrolled in school, how much the state spends on Head Start programs per kid, how much child care costs as a share of family income, and more.

Interestingly, there isn't one state that hits the top spot in every category. Still, there are some fascinating takeaways. For example, Minnesota has one of the lowest max-income requirements for state pre-K eligibility at $9,155, which is 4.6 times lower than North Carolina, which is set at $42,482. That means a family can make up to $42,482 in North Carolina and still access state-run pre-K programs — in Minnesota, that income threshold is much, much lower. (Not shockingly, Minnesota’s programs rank much, much lower than North Carolina’s.)

Here are the best states for early childhood education programs overall:

1. Arkansas

2. Nebraska

3. Maryland

4. District of Columbia

5. Rhode Island

6. Alabama

7. Oregon

8. Vermont

9. West Virginia

10. New Mexico

Here are the worst states for early childhood education programs:

42. Wyoming

43. South Dakota

44. New York

45. Idaho

46. Montana

47. New Hampshire

48. Minnesota

49. Missouri

50. North Dakota

51. Indiana

If you're interested in seeing where your state falls on the list and where it fell in all the key metrics, check out the full report on WalletHub.

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