In recent years, local, state and federal investment in early learning and care have been trending upward. At the state level, investment in Pre-K has increased by 47 percent over the last five years. These state funded initiatives and capacity-building commitments show strong support for what research shows is the most critical period of development in a child’s life.

Unfortunately, child care is still one of the largest expenses in a family’s budget; the cost of care can rival that of housing. Federal early childhood education (ECE) programs, such as Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), make it possible for low-income families to access high quality early learning and care that prepares kids for kindergarten while enabling parents to participate in the workforce. The size of the population eligible for federal ECE programs greatly outnumbers the available supply. This supply and demand dilemma results in long waiting lists that prevent many parents from securing affordable, quality child care for their children.

Over the same period of time, K-12 charter schools have grown in number. According to research conducted by Bellwether Education Partners in 2015, 32 states had at least one charter school serving preschoolers, and nationally, 965 charter schools offered preschool. As of March 2017, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), reported there were 6,939 charter schools in 43 states and Washington D.C.

Since laws governing charter schools vary from state to state, environments conducive to including pre-k in charter schools depend on a mix of policy and funding factors. New findings from Mathematica’s latest Pre-K study found that KIPP Charter School’s Pre-K program, when combined with KIPP early elementary school, has positive and statistically significant impacts on reading and math achievement. A closer look into the characteristics of KIPP Pre-K includes, among other factors, the charter network’s development of a play-based approach in order to foster a high-quality early learning setting. Learning through play is developmentally appropriate, and supports children’s curiosity and a foundation for life-long learning.  Another important characteristic was the structural alignment of KIPP Pre-K with KIPP early elementary programs. By sharing the same brick and mortar, there are additional opportunities for alignment and continuity in leadership and instruction.

Early childhood education has a long track-record of bipartisan support. During the 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Senate HELP Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), then House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and House Education and the Workforce Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) collaborated across the aisle in order to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This joint effort resulted in the elevation of ECE connections across ESSA. In addition to bipartisan support for ECE on the hill, voters rank it as a high-priority issue. According to FFYF’s 2017 National Poll, 85% of voters say there should be increased funding for child care that directly supports greater access to quality programs for low- and middle-income children while their parents work or attend school. To that end, the bipartisan effort to pass ESSA leveraged momentum and aimed to remove barriers. Under ESSA, the definition of charter school was amended to include schools that serve students in early childhood education programs, and charter schools are authorized to use federal funds under Title IV’s Charter Schools Program (CSP). Similar to traditional public schools, charter schools have the option to apply for federal funding that would support launching or strengthening early learning initiatives.

To learn more about what charter schools can do under ESSA to support early learning, check out FFYF’s ‘What Early Learning ESSA Can Look Like for States and Districts’.