The Impact of Racial Segregation in Public Preschools - Paper Pinecone Blog

The Impact of Racial Segregation in Public Preschools

Published Date: 01/15/20

Many people think that the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public schools with the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education, Topeka decision. Unfortunately, this decision, which stated that separate schools for children of color are unequal and therefore, unconstitutional, did not apply to pre-K and Kindergarten, because those grades were not a requirement of public schools at the time that it was written. When parents look at preschool opportunities for their four-year-old child, they may be shocked to find limited options available. Even more shocking is to discover how racial segregation may be widening the achievement gap and the quality gap between the best and the worst of preschools.

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“Unlike the past, when segregationist laws and the threat of violence by white mobs kept racial barriers intact, in the current period, de facto segregation is maintained through "choice" and enrollment patterns that are viewed as voluntary.” (1) The changing demographics of immigration have made segregation less of a black/white issue than it was in 1954. Children from Middle Eastern, South American, and various Asian countries have added a wide array of languages and skin tones to preschool classrooms; however, a gap still exists between the opportunities available for children living in poverty, regardless of their race, compared to those who live in more affluent homes.

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Head Start is a well-intended, federally funded program for four year old’s that began in 1965. It was designed for children in poverty to help them be as successful as more affluent children when they got to kindergarten. Unfortunately, the income limitations for Head Start keeps many children from being able to access the program, even though children from middle-income families would benefit from the educational experiences that Head Start provides. Some research has shown that “Families with modest incomes (under $60,000) have the least access of all economic groups to preschool education.”[ii] Since public schools serve the community in which they are built, schools in poor neighborhoods are more likely to have Head Start programs that are attended only by children of color. This segregation of children by economic class for Head Start resulted in them also being segregated by race[iii].

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The state of California is struggling to overcome the inadequacies of its preschool programs. Like most states which are attempting to improve families’ access to preschool education, racial segregation is one of the concerns it must address. The quality of a public preschool’s curriculum, staff, and facilities depends on the way a school district allocates its funds. If a district does not pay attention to the racial diversity of its campus boundaries, and school district demographics change due to White Flight and increases in income inequality, the differences between one campus and another can result in racial inequalities.[iv]

Some states offer preschool programs for children all 3-5. Income does not play a role in program criteria. Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia provide free preschool for most four-year-old children; however, twelve states in the United States do not offer any state-funded preschools. Instead, services are limited only to providing the federally funded Head Start program, for children living in poverty. Access to preschool varies widely by states, as does the quality of the programs provided. A recent study found that there are racial disparities (black/white and Hispanic/white) in preschool experiences that may impact the outcomes of its students. Those inequalities include differences in class sizes, teacher qualifications, and experience, both of which impact the emotional and instructional classroom climate.[v] The study showed that racial segregation, regardless of its cause, negatively impacts the achievement of students of color.

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If racial segregation has negative impacts, what positive impacts do integrated classroom provide? Over time, students in integrated schools:
    1.    have higher achievement test scores,
    2.    are less likely to drop out of school, and
    3.    are more likely to go to college.

In addition, integrated classrooms have social and emotional benefits for children. Integrated classrooms:
    1.    can help reduce racial bias and counter stereotypes,
    2.    can improve students' satisfaction and intellectual self-confidence, and
    3.    can enhance students' leadership skills.[i]

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Looking beyond the United States allows us to learn from countries that have implemented preschool programs for all children, regardless of economic class. In France, universal preschool was instituted during the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in almost 100% of four-year-old children being enrolled. The analysis of its impact showed that preschool greatly reduced inequalities between children and had a greater impact on students from poverty or middle class than it did on higher-income children, although the experience was not harmful to children from wealthy families.[i]

In Denmark, 97% of children 3-4 years old participate in preschool education.[ii] Although the curriculum is locally defined and class sizes vary, the program is widely seen as beneficial, designed around free play and strong social peer interactions.

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A recent review of 25 universal preschool research studies showed that when they looked at long term outcomes, “All estimates for outcomes related to adequate primary and secondary school progression, years of schooling, highest degree completed, employment, and earnings indicated beneficial average effects.”[iii] Also, the effects were not significantly different for boys or girls but were more beneficial for children identified as low SES that those that were not, as it reduced the gap in opportunities between those two groups.

What are some strategies to better integrate and reduce the inequity in quality between preschools? A few suggestions include:

  1. Providing supplemental funding for preschool for children whose income ranges do not meet Head Start income eligibility criteria but fall into middle-income ranges. Expanding preschool beyond those in poverty may allow more Caucasian students to be eligible for preschool services.
  2. As residential de facto segregation can create all-black or all-Hispanic schools, the attendance areas for preschools may need to be enlarged, and transportation provided to create larger, but more centralized and diverse preschool campuses.
  3. Establishing state-level quality standards for preschool curriculum, as well as teacher certification and training, would lessen inequalities between programs.

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Each of these recommendations requires additional funding from state or local resources. In November 2019, Governor Newsom announced an Early Childhood Policy Council to develop a Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. Investing an additional $2 billion of the 2019-20 budget to support young children’s health and learning, Newsom’s announcement states that the council will provide “support for the demographic, geographic and economic diversity of the state’s children and families.”[i] This policy change is a step in the right direction. Ending racial segregation in preschools and providing accessible, equitable, and quality services to all children will help ensure California’s future workforce is built on a strong foundation.  

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[i]The Benefits of Socioeconomically and Racially Integrated Schools and Classrooms. (2019, April 29). Retrieved from The Century Foundation:
[ii] Slot, P. L., & Bleses, D. (2018). Individual children's interactions with teachers, peers, and task: the applicability of the inClass pre-k in danish preschools. Learning and Individual Differences, 68-76.
[iii] Dietrichson, J., Kristiansen, I. L., & Neilsen, B. C. (2018). Universal Preschool Programs and Long-Term Child Outcomes. VIVE- The Danish Center for Social Science Research. Retrieved from
vii Dumas, C., & LeFranc, A. (2010). Early schooling and later outcomes: Evidence from pre-school extension in France. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
[i] Noguera, P. A. (2016). Race, education, and the pursuit of equity in the twenty-first century. In Equity and Education (pp. 3-23). Springer Cham. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-23772-5_1
[ii] Barnett, W. S., & Yarosz, D. J. (2007). Who goes to preschool and why does it matter? Preschool Policy Matters, 7. Retrieved from
[iii] Fernandes, D. (2019, Dec 18). Extremely Separate and Widely Unequal. Retrieved from
[iv] Sosina, V. E., & Weathers, E. S. (2019, July-September). Pathways to inequality: Between-district segregation and racial disparities in school district expenditures. AERA Open, 5(3), 1-15. doi:10.1177/2332858419872445
[v] Valentino, R. (2018, February). Will public Pre-K really close achievement gaps? Gaps in Prekindergarten quality between students and across states. American Educational Research Journal, 55(1), 79-116. doi:10.3102/0002831217732000
[i] Council and a Team to Develop Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. (2019, November 22). Retrieved from CA.GOV Office of Governor Gavin Newsom: