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If You Offer it, Will They Come? Application Behavior Patterns in a Universal Prekindergarten Context

Fri, March 22, 7:45 to 9:15am, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 1, Exhibit Hall B

Integrative Statement

At kindergarten entry, children from families in the top income quintile are 1.3 standard deviations ahead of children from families in the bottom quintile in both reading and math (Duncan & Magnuson, 2011). Some states and cities have implemented universal public prekindergarten programs, in part to reduce these income-based school readiness gaps. But interestingly, take-up rates in the five state universal programs average only 71%, ranging from 60% in Georgia to 88% in the District of Columbia (Friedman-Krauss et al., 2018). To date, there has been very little research on the students who are eligible to attend a no-cost prekindergarten program but choose not to participate. Some non-attenders likely attend tuition-based prekindergarten but others do not attend any center-based program. Information on who does not take up universal prekindergarten, particularly among low-income children who likely have fewer alterative options, can help states and localities better target recruitment and outreach efforts. In the present study, we use data from the Boston Public School’s universal prekindergarten program in 2008- 2009 and 2009-2010 to address this gap in the literature. Specifically, we examine the family and neighborhood characteristics of students who enrolled in BPS in kindergarten but did not apply to the prekindergarten program.

We answer three research questions. How do kindergarteners who did and did not apply to BPS prekindergarten differ on observable demographic characteristics? How are appliers and non-appliers distributed across the city and how do they differ on neighborhood characteristics? And, what are the characteristics of the schools and the surrounding neighborhoods attended by appliers and non-appliers in elementary school?

Our sample includes 8,391 students who were enrolled in kindergarten in the Boston Public Schools for at least one day in the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years. About half applied to Boston prekindergarten in the prior year and half did not. Among non-appliers, about 32% enrolled in private preschool, 36% in Head Start, and 22% in no form of non-parental care. Our key student-level measures (gender, race, free-reduced-lunch status, language, and special education status) are drawn from administrative records. We also use students’ district-created geocodes to generate neighborhood-level characteristics from 2010 census data and 2006-2010 ACS 5-year estimates that capture characteristics of students’ neighborhoods. We used simple bivariate linear regression to estimate the difference in means between non-appliers and appliers.

We find that prekindergarten non-appliers are more likely to be non-white, low-income, and dual language (Table 1). Non-appliers who did not attend any non-parental care setting in the prekindergarten year are from higher-risk backgrounds than other students. We find similar differences at the neighborhood level (see Table 2). Non-appliers are distributed relatively evenly throughout the city and are more likely to attend lower-performing elementary schools

Our study provides some of the first descriptive information on the sociodemographic characteristics and spatial distribution of families who opt out of applying to universal prekindergarten programs. As more localities implement universal prekindergarten, our findings can inform the work of policymakers and practitioners in developing recruitment strategies that promote equitable and universal enrollment.

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