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The Vital Role of Early Care and Education (ECE) Programs in Rural Areas

SPA professor demonstrates the need for public investment in programs like Head Start in non-metropolitan areas.

Many American families, particularly those living in rural areas, struggle to find affordable care for young children. New research shows how lack of access places children entering school in rural areas at an academic disadvantage – and demonstrates the role of public investments in early learning.

SPA Professor Taryn Morrissey recently coauthored “Access to Early Care and Education in Rural Communities: Implications for Children's School Readiness,”  with Scott Allard and Elizabeth Pelletier of the University of Washington, published in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. In the study, researchers examined participation in early care and education (ECE) programs over time, looking closely at geographic, economic, and demographic differences. The analysis, based on longitudinal data following children who enrolled in kindergarten in the 2010-11 school year, showed much higher private preschool enrollment, and related nonprofit expenditures, in cities. Meanwhile, public ECE programs, such as Head Start, were more consistent across geographic location, with a higher impact in rural areas.

Though these rural-metropolitan gaps in school readiness (as measured by math and reading scores at kindergarten entry) greatly diminished when researchers controlled for children’s background, location, and county-level ECE supply, the results still reinforce the importance of public support for rural locations.

“Rural families need childcare too,” Morrissey said. “Rural communities lack private infrastructure and would benefit from increased public investment. It’s needed across the country.”

Findings emphasize that Head Start plays a key role in supporting young children across urban and rural communities, Morrissey said. Public programs are especially needed in less-populated parts of the country, which are less likely to receive private-sector investments. Transportation, lack of infrastructure, and fewer community centers also make it more challenging to provide services in small towns.

The unmet need for services is great, said Morrissey, especially since the benefits of ECE have been demonstrated to stretch into elementary school achievement, high school graduation, college participation, and workforce success.

Fewer than 40% percent of four-year-old children in poverty are enrolled in Head Start, Morrissey explained, and fewer than one of every six income-eligible children receive public childcare subsidies. While most states are now offering public preschool programs, with a focus on serving low-income children (typically at age 4), more support, particularly investments in ECE, is needed to improve their educational outcomes.

“There’s just not enough of these preschool services to go around,” Morrissey said.