The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released its latest state rankings for pre-K enrollment, and, much like last year, Delaware landed toward the bottom at 36th in terms of providing access for four-year-olds. Less than 10 percent of Delaware four-year-olds are enrolled in state-sponsored pre-K.
Little has changed with Delaware’s NIEER standing since 2002 with preschool enrollment and spending per child relatively flat, while our state-funded pre-K (ECAP) has not been expanded since its inception in the 1990. The report correctly mentioned that the program expanded eligibility to include three-year-olds for the first time in 2017-2018, but Delaware is not yet serving three-year-olds in ECAP.
Make no mistake: Delaware has seen some great early learning progress over the last decade. But NIEER’s rankings put Delaware behind all of our neighboring states and many others across the country in terms of four-year-olds being served by state-supported pre-K.
And, when Head Start, special education, and ECAP are included, Delaware ranks 36th for enrollment of low-income students.
Three- and four-year-olds in Delaware attend a scattershot of pre-K offerings, if they attend at all. Some providers are funded through the state, some are private businesses, while others receive a mix of private and public funding. There is little coordination or alignment between various programs.
In Delaware and other states, state-funded pre-K typically carries higher standards than other childcare options when it comes to academics, staff (BAs for teachers and Child Development Associate degrees for assistants, as recommended by NIEER), and expectations on the students. And, as we’ve noted before, as we continue to align the pre-K and K-12 systems, we need to ensure as many kids as possible are coming to kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed.
This jibes with recent ELS data that show us nearly half of Delaware students are entering kindergarten behind the curve, signaling the need to increase access and quality of state-sponsored pre-K—and all early learning environments that support young people from birth.
The good news is there’s a lot of interest in Delaware to improve our ranking and serve more children.
- Local and national studies agree—pre-K can have a big impact.
- Secretary of Education Susan Bunting, who initiated the Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. program in Indian River School District, found that English learner participants in pre-K outperformed their nonparticipating peers through high school.
- A UD study demonstrated that ECAP participants were outperforming their nonparticipating peers through middle school.
- Pre-K is one of the highest return on investments a state can make.
- Delawareans support expansion.
- 86 percent of Delawareans in a recent poll support expanding pre-K.
- Delaware recently joined a national network focused on high quality pre-K expansion through CCSSO.
- The Vision Coalition of Delaware in Student Success 2025 recommended to “establish and incrementally expand voluntary, full-day, high-quality prekindergarten for three- and four-year-olds.”
- Districts across the state are expanding their programs, especially Colonial.
- The Coalition for Our Kids has advocated for greater investment in ECAP.
- And, it’s possible—we have a model. In the 2000s, Delaware implemented a 10-year, phased-in, full-day kindergarten requirement during which districts had the time to build facilities, raise the local funding required, hire teachers, and inform families. Pre-K could be done in much the same way, but with public and private settings, with community-based providers providing services as they do now.
As we’ve said many times on this blog, investments in quality early learning yield enormous returns, for students, families, and society as a whole.