Journal Issue: School Readiness: Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps Volume 15 Number 1 Spring 2005
Racial and Ethnic Differentials in Enrollment in Early Childhood Care and Education
To consider how children's experiences in early childhood care and education may be affecting racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness, we examine racial and ethnic differences in enrollment in different types of care. We start by comparing rates of Hispanic, black, and white children's enrollment in center care or preschool programs over time, making use of data from the October Current Population Survey (CPS) from 1968 to 2000.67 Despite minor changes in question wording over the period, the October CPS provides fairly consistent data on the enrollment of three- to five-year-olds in center care and preschool (including nursery schools, Head Start, and prekindergarten).68 We focus on enrollment trends for three- and four-year-olds, because kindergarten is now almost universal for five-year-olds.
In recent decades, preschool enrollment has grown steadily for three- and four-year-olds from all racial and ethnic groups (figures 1 and 2).69 Yet racial and ethnic differences in enrollment are still evident. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, black three-and four-year-olds were slightly more likely than their white peers to attend preschool. Starting in the mid-1980s, however, black children's enrollment stagnated, while white children's enrollment continued to increase. Trends since the mid-1990s suggest that black children may have regained their enrollment advantage. Rates of preschool enrollment for Hispanic children have remained consistently below those of other children. In 2000, only 23 percent of Hispanic three-year-olds were in preschool compared with 49 percent and 43 percent of their black and white peers, respectively. Gaps are also apparent for Hispanic four-year-olds.
In fact, racial and ethnic differences in enrollment in center care or preschool programs exist for young children in all age groups. Table 1 describes the care and education arrangements of children under age six in 1999.70 As expected, young white children are somewhat less likely to be enrolled in center care or preschool than black children (panel A). Black children are more likely than white children to attend center care as their primary arrangement (33 percent versus 26 percent) or to attend any center care, whether as a primary or secondary arrangement (40 percent versus 30 percent). Again, Hispanic children are the least likely to be in center care (22 percent).
If one looks only at children with employed mothers (panel B), the patterns remain quite similar, suggesting that different rates of maternal employment do not explain the disparities in enrollment. Thus, the fact that black mothers are more likely to be employed fulltime than white mothers is not the only reason why a greater share of black children is enrolled in center care.71 Even within families with employed mothers, black children are more likely to be in center care than white children.72
As table 1 shows, the type of early childhood care and education also varies by family income. Families with the highest incomes (at or above 200 percent of the poverty threshold) are most likely to use preschool or center care. Because child care subsidies and Head Start and prekindergarten programs are targeted to economically disadvantaged families, families in poverty are more likely to use center care than are those with incomes between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty threshold.
Although black children are more likely to be in center care than white children, they are not enrolled in the same types of programs. As noted, black and Hispanic children are more likely to be economically disadvantaged than white children, and thus are more likely to participate in publicly funded preschool programs. More than 20 percent of black and 15 percent of Hispanic three- and four-year-olds are enrolled in Head Start, compared with about 4 percent of white children.73
These racial and ethnic differentials in participation suggest that Head Start probably has played an important role in equalizing rates of black and white children's participation in early education. Assuming that children attending Head Start centers would not receive any center care in its absence, then relative to white children gaps in enrollment might be as large as 9 percentage points for black children and 31 percentage points for Hispanic children.74
What does this imply for Head Start's effectiveness in narrowing the black-white achievement gaps? Answering this question requires an accurate estimate of Head Start's effects on children, which to date have not been established. We offer an upper bound of the possible effects by using estimates from the quasi-experimental study of the Chicago Child Parent Centers.75 The estimate is likely to be an upper bound because the CPC had more highly qualified teachers than most Head Start centers.76 Arthur Reynolds reported that the effect of participating in CPC for one year was 0.64 of a standard deviation increase in academic skills in the fall of kindergarten.77 If Head Start boosts skills as much as CPC, then with 19 percent of black children in Head Start, black children's skills would be about 0.12 of a standard deviation lower, on average, if they did not attend Head Start or other early education programs. Since the black-white test score gap is estimated at close to 0.50 of a standard deviation, such a reduction implies that the black-white test score gap would be about 24 percent larger (at 0.62 of a standard deviation) in the absence of Head Start. The proportions of Hispanic and black children in Head Start are similar; it is therefore likely that the program also has reduced Hispanic-white test score gaps. In terms of lower bounds, we think it is likely that Head Start's effects are greater than zero and thus are fairly confident that the program has played an equalizing role.
Have other public preschool programs also affected racial and ethnic patterns of preschool enrollment or achievement gaps? Prekindergarten is more likely to be offered in schools with a large percentage of racial and ethnic minority children, which suggests that black and Hispanic children may be more likely than white children to attend publicly funded prekindergarten. However, precise national estimates of the number of black, Hispanic, and white children attending publicly funded prekindergarten programs are not available.78