Baby girl playing with toy at Educare Chicago

Pre-K Enrollment Policy & Access in Chicago

Exploring the conditions that facilitate increased enrollment among families living in under-resourced communities.

Pre-kindergarten (pre-K) enrollment has risen steadily in the United States in recent decades, largely driven by the mounting body of research evidence on the effectiveness of early childhood education. However, the same children, who are most at-risk for ongoing academic struggles and the most likely to benefit from high-quality early educational experiences, are least likely to have access to high-quality pre-K options, which contributes to inequitable enrollment within districts. Importantly, school districts are making choices about where to place pre-K classrooms and developing policies for how families can apply and who is enrolled. In doing so, districts are pulling policy levers that influence students’ access to pre-K; but to date very few of these policies have been rigorously examined.

A recent study by education researchers at Start Early, NORC at the University of Chicago, and UChicago Consortium on School Research explores whether and how Chicago’s pre-K system was more equitable after the district implemented a set of policies focused on access to and enrollment in school-based pre-K beginning in 2013-14. Furthermore, this research seeks to understand how access and enrollment varied depending on students’ neighborhood characteristics and how policy changes and access to full-day, school-based pre-K were related to learning outcomes in elementary school.

The findings from this study of Chicago’s efforts offer key insights for other school districts implementing similar policies nationwide.

Key Findings

  • Following major policy changes in Chicago, including 1) increasing the number of full-day, school-based pre-K classrooms, and 2) reallocating pre-K classrooms through the city – access to full-day school-based pre-K increased for nearly all students. The portion of elementary schools in the Chicago Public School district (CPS) with full-day pre-K quadrupled (from 10% to 41%). Post policy changes, high priority student groups lived near more full-day, school-based pre-K classrooms and lived closer to a CPS school with a full-day pre-K classroom.
  • In contrast to full-day pre-K, access to any CPS pre-K (including half-day), did not change substantially following the policy shift.
  • Overall, full-day, school-based pre-K enrollment rates grew nearly four-fold from 3.2% in 2010-11 to 11.6% in 2015-16. Black students and students living in lowest-income neighborhoods were three times more likely to enroll in full-day pre-K following policy changes. Latinx students were also more likely to enroll in full-day pre-K following policy changes, but at rates much lower than the city average.
  • Study findings show that policy changes to Chicago’s school-based pre-K system enabled greater equity in both access to and enrollment in full-day, school-based pre-K for high-priority student groups (i.e., students of color, English Learners, and students living in neighborhoods with lower income and higher unemployment) that had been previously under-enrolled.
  • Contrary to initial concerns, analyses of enrollment data from preschool programs run by community-based organizations (CBOs) seem to indicate that the expansion of full-day, school-based pre-K classrooms did not take away students from CBO programs overall in Chicago. Following policy changes, more students were enrolled in full-day classrooms in both CBO preschool and CPS school-based pre-K.
  • We used a data-driven methodology for characterizing Chicago neighborhoods, that leverages publicly available census data and allows us to consider many neighborhood characteristics simultaneously. This “neighborhood-centered” method resulted in a concise set of five neighborhoods groupings in Chicago that focuses our attention on the characteristics of residents and allow us to see variation within community areas more clearly.
  • The concentration of full-day pre-K seats increased most in primarily Black neighborhoods and neighborhoods with lower income on the West and South Sides of Chicago. Our study provides one example of how understanding the characteristics of neighborhoods can we be useful to inform policy decisions.
  • District policies determine who has access to school-based pre-K. As school districts nationwide grapple with limited full-day pre-K capacity, this study offers important insights. Most notably, increasing access to school-based, full-day pre-K may be an effective policy strategy for increasing enrollment among high-priority student groups and making pre-K opportunities more equitable.
  • Increased access was also related to higher kindergarten entry skills and ultimately better academic outcomes in second grade, particularly for high-priority students. Average second grade math and reading test scores and academic grades increased the most for some high-priority student groups, including Black students, students in the lowest-income group, and students living in mostly Black neighborhoods.

Publications & Resources

Research & Evaluation Team & Collaborators


The research described here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant #R305A180510 to NORC at the University of Chicago. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.