These states, areas rank best for early childhood education

Experts also weigh in on critical areas of need during WalletHub's 2020 study

Which areas of the United States best prepare young children for the future? The list of those that excel or struggle is a familiar one, though there is a change at the top for 2020.

After finishing second during last year’s study, the District of Columbia beat out all 50 states this year in WalletHub’s States with the Best & Worst Early Education Systems, ranking in the top three in areas of access as well as resources and economic support.

Nebraska, which was No. 1 in 2019, placed second overall, followed by Maryland, West Virginia and Arkansas. For the second straight year, Indiana finished at the bottom of the rankings, sitting below North Dakota and Missouri.

The annual study was performed again on a series of 12 metrics, including the share of school districts that offer a state pre-K programs, the number of pre-K quality benchmarks met and the total reported spending per child enrolled in pre-K.

WalletHub leaned on a number of education experts for the study, who also responded to key questions and issues facing early education.

  • Arthur Hochman, a professor of education at Butler University, said his top five indicators of best and worst early education systems include quality and training of educators, accreditation, connection to the community, equity and reach and buy-in locally, regionally and nationally.
  • Kristin Lyons, associate professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, highlighted the need to “look at school assessment systems to ensure that we are measuring outcomes that matter. Currently, school performance ratings are primarily based on test scores. This system is routinely noted to be problematic because schools in wealthier neighborhoods almost always have higher test scores on average than schools in low-income neighborhoods.”
  • T. Kevin McGowan, Assistant Professor at the Martin Richard Institute for Social Justice said the Covid-19 is having a profound impact. “Policymakers need to think about a differentiated approach to assist families and children during this crisis. In the case of hybrid models, a one-size-fits-all model may not be effective. Perhaps children with special needs should be the first group to have access to face-to-face instructions and the wrap-around services that schools in partnership with community agencies can provide. In addition, some families do not have access to reliable internet services. These children will benefit from having face-to-face instruction.”

In the study, DC ranked No. 1 overall in the access category, which WalletHub and its experts defined as schools that offer state pre-K programs and their growth, the shares of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K, special education and head start programs and waiting lists or frozen intake for child care assistance. DC has the highest share of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K, pre-K special education and head start programs.

Others that excelled in access included Vermont, Illinois, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Arkansas was the top-ranked state in terms of “quality,” a category that considers a number of factors, including early learning and development standards, curriculum supports, specialized training in pre-K, professional development, class size of 20 or fewer and staff-child ratio of 1:10 or better. Nebraska was No. 2, followed by Maryland, Virginia and Texas.

As for resources and economic support, Rhode Island ranked No. 1. Oregon, DC, Connecticut and Minnesota rounded out the top five in the category, which looked at total spending per child, head start program spending and change in state spending per child enrolled in preschool. It also factored in monthly child care co-payment fees as a share of family income.

One expert said it’s no secret that states that have robustly funded systems have students that have a better chance of getting ahead.

“I think that funding helps a lot and currently, the field of early childhood education is vastly underfunded,” says Julia Smith, Assistant Professor of early childhood education at Purdue University Fort Wayne. “One issue that impacts the quality of care in early childhood education is the turnover rate of teachers and caregivers. Because of the low wages, turnover is high in the field. Children need consistency of care when they are young, and they need teachers with experience and education.”

A number of states – California, Louisiana, South Dakota, Utah and Vermont – offer the lowest monthly child care co-payment fees as a percent of family income. Hawaii and Michigan, meanwhile, have the highest income requirement for state pre-K eligibility. Oregon, which placed 10th overall in the study, topped the list of states with the highest head start spending per child enrolled in preschool, followed by Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at

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