Over the past several decades, increasing maternal labor force participation and growing public recognition of the importance of early education for children’s development and school readiness has led to a large and continuous increase in young children’s participation in early care and education (ECE) programs. In 1965, only six percent of children with employed mothers were in organized center-based care arrangements, compared to more than one-quarter in 2011. Participation in early education programs has increased even more steeply among preschool-aged children: from 1968 to 2000, the enrollment rates of three-year-olds rose from eight to 39 percent and four-year-olds rose from 23 to 65 percent (Bainbridge et al., 2005).
Over the same time period, there has been growth in public investments in early childhood programs. Total federal funding for ECE programs nearly quadrupled in nominal dollars between 1990 and 2002 (Chaudry, 2004). With expansions in Head Start, the creation of Early Head Start, and expansions in child care subsidies, in recent years public spending continued to grow, particularly with the investments made under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009). State investments have also increased, as indicated by the doubling of the proportion of four-year-olds enrolled in state public prekindergarten programs from 2002 to 2012 (NIEER, 2013).
Several recent publications have examined trends in preschool and center-based child care attendance over the last several decades and the characteristics of children and families who account for the growth in ECE participation. Private, out-of-pocket spending on ECE rose from 1995 to 2005. This increase was driven by private spending for younger children, with a 30 percent increase in spending on birth to two-year-olds, a 17 percent increase for three-year-olds, and a six percent increase for four-year-old children (Belfield, 2010). Using data from 1968 to 2010, Magnuson and Waldfogel (2012) found that historically, Black three-and four-year-old children were more likely to be enrolled in preschool than White preschoolers, but this gap disappeared by the 1980s and reversed direction thereafter such that White preschoolers became more likely to be enrolled than their Black peers. Hispanic children’s enrollment in preschool has been consistently lower than White or Black children’s enrollment, though the gap between Hispanic and White children’s preschool enrollment began to narrow after 2000. Also, children with employed mothers spend more hours in center care, as do both children with more educated mothers and those in single-parent households (Belfield, 2010). The use of center care is strongly associated with children’s age; four-year-olds are much more likely to be enrolled in centers than infants and toddlers (Belfield, 2010; Laughlin, 2013).
A large body of research has found that lower-income children are less likely to be enrolled in center care than higher-income children, and this income gap has remained fairly stable over the past 30 years (Magnuson and Waldfogel, 2012). However, there is evidence that increases in public spending for ECE and the availability of no- or low-cost public options increase the probability that low-income children enroll in preschool or center-based settings (Ertas and Shields, 2012; Greenberg, 2010; Kinukawa, Guzman, and Lippman, 2004; Laughlin, 2013; Magnuson et al., 2007). While the probability of a child in the lowest income quartile being enrolled in center care is just 0.29, this increases to 0.41 if the family receives child care assistance (Ertas and Shields, 2012). Likewise, among families in the bottom third of the income distribution, a $1,000 per-child increase in public pre-K funding increases the odds that a three- to five-year-old child will attend center-based care as their primary arrangement by about 35 percent, whereas there is no effect on enrollment among children in the top third of the income distribution (Greenberg, 2010).
This report and analysis adds to this literature by providing a comprehensive picture of how young children’s enrollment in center-based care or preschool settings has changed over the last two decades, and how rates of participation in these various settings differ by child age and family demographic characteristics, using two complementary nationally representative datasets.