Skip to main content

State Preschool in a Mixed Delivery System: Lessons From Five States

By Karin Garver G. G. Weisenfeld Lori Connors-Tadros Katherine Hodges Hanna Melnick Sara Plasencia
Teacher helping preschool students with a project.

Most U.S. states operate their public preschool programs in a mixed delivery system, in which public preschool and child care are offered through a variety of settings, including local education agencies (LEAs) as well as non-LEA settings, such as Head Start agencies, community-based child care centers, private schools, and family child care homes. A mixed delivery system has many benefits, including adding valuable capacity to serve children; providing families with choice in the environment they prefer for their children; and supporting small businesses. There are several challenges to operating a mixed delivery system, however, such as coordinating and supporting the participation of preschool providers across settings, from large LEAs to small private providers.

To inform state preschool administrators and policymakers as they refine their mixed delivery systems, this report describes the mixed delivery systems of five states that have taken different approaches to supporting providers across settings. All five states meet at least 7 of the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 10 quality benchmarks, indicating that they have many policies to support quality preschool.

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K (FCPK) program has a strong, centralized system of quality monitoring and support. FCPK reaches 34% of 4-year-olds in a full-day program, with no income eligibility requirements. State funding for FCPK is provided directly to LEA and non-LEA providers.

Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) serves about one third of its 4-year-old population and is designed to serve primarily families with low income. Funding flows from the state to 56 intermediate school districts (ISDs) that are responsible for distributing funding and providing professional development to LEA and non-LEA providers.

New Jersey’s Preschool Expansion Program, which builds on New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program, serves 29% of 4-year-olds and 16% of 3-year-olds in the state. New Jersey has high rates of non-LEA participation in public preschool, with 41% of state preschool students enrolled in non-LEA settings. Preschool funding is awarded to LEAs, which are responsible for subcontracting with and providing support to non-LEAs.

New York state’s preschool program has two complementary funding streams: the Statewide Universal Full-Day Prekindergarten (SUFDPK) grant and Universal Prekindergarten (UPK). Together, these programs serve 46% of 4-year-olds in the state. LEAs contract directly with the state, then subcontract with participating non-LEA providers. A significant portion of state-funded slots (44%) are in New York City’s Pre-K for All program.

West Virginia’s Universal Pre-K program (WV Pre-K) is a universal program that serves about 56% of 4-year-olds in the state. State funding flows to county boards of education. Eighty-two percent of WV Pre-K classrooms are "collaborative," meaning that LEAs offer services in collaboration with non-LEAs.

Key Considerations for a Mixed Delivery Preschool System

States face a variety of decisions when designing or expanding preschool programs in a mixed delivery system. Decisions about who oversees the mixed delivery system and how quality is supported have implications for the extent to which families have access to high-quality providers across settings. The five case study states have similar quality standards and offer similar access to professional development across provider setting. However, they differ in how they approach governance and oversight of LEAs and non-LEAs, from who supports non-LEA providers to how enrollment is coordinated. They have also taken different paths when it comes to pay parity, instructional coaching, and quality monitoring.

Governance and administration

States must determine how much oversight will rest at the state level and how much will rest at a regional or local level, addressing the following questions:

  • Who is responsible for contracting with preschool providers? State contracting structures affect how funding flows to providers and who monitors their finances, as well as how providers receive support to improve quality.
  • Should legislation require the inclusion of both LEA and non-LEA providers in their state preschool system? States can signal the importance of non-LEA participation in their public preschool system by requiring that a certain portion of children be served in these settings.
  • How should states support non-LEA participation? The case study states have implemented different strategies to identify and support new providers to offer state preschool, particularly non-LEAs, which might have more barriers to participation than LEAs. Examples of support include providing technical assistance, offering grants, and implementing an outreach strategy to encourage program providers in underserved areas to apply for state preschool funding.
  • How will families access public preschool in a way that is equitable? A state’s system for recruitment, outreach, and enrollment of children—often called “coordinated enrollment”—has implications for families’ ability to find the setting that meets their needs.
  • How are provider funding levels determined? Some states develop per-child state preschool funding levels that are customized to individual program needs, since program costs vary by provider type and size.

Program quality

There are several key decisions states must make when it comes to program quality, including setting quality standards, supporting continuous improvement, and monitoring quality.

  • What standards govern quality across the mixed delivery system? The states in this study have consistent quality standards for LEAs and non-LEAs, which support access to a high-quality preschool experience regardless of setting. For example, all states studied require providers in both LEAs and non-LEAs to provide professional development aligned to standards and child assessments, use an evidence-based curriculum, have a class size of 20 or less, and maintain a teacher-child ratio of at least 1:10.
  • How do teacher qualification requirements vary by setting? Across LEA and non-LEA settings, all five case study states require equivalent qualifications for assistant teachers and require a bachelor’s degree with early childhood education (ECE) specialization for all lead teachers.
  • How does teacher compensation vary by setting? Nationally, preschool teachers tend to earn less than K–12 teachers, and preschool teachers in non-LEAs earn less than those in LEAs, making it challenging for providers to recruit and retain qualified staff. For example, some states address this issue by requiring that state-funded preschool teachers in non-LEA settings receive salaries commensurate with their peers in LEA settings.
  • How do teaching staff receive coaching and professional development? The case study states have similar requirements for teaching staff across LEA and non-LEA settings, although who oversees and coordinates this coaching varies by state.
  • Who is responsible for program quality oversight? To cultivate program quality in a mixed delivery system, states need to determine how providers will be held accountable for program quality.


The states studied illustrate that, for some policy decisions related to mixed delivery preschool systems, there may be more than one correct path. However, there are six actions states should consider taking to support a strong mixed delivery system with consistent quality across settings.

  1. Establish strong program standards across settings so that all children receive high-quality preschool experiences. The states studied in this report have high quality standards that are aligned across LEAs and non-LEAs to ensure that families have access to quality care in a variety of settings.
  2. Address barriers that might prevent qualified non-LEAs from participating in the state preschool program. Non-LEAs often lack information about how to become a public preschool provider and have smaller administrative teams than LEAs to help them set up new contracts.
  3. Ensure that both LEA and non-LEA providers receive ongoing support to offer and sustain high-quality learning environments, including coaching and professional development that is embedded in a continuous quality improvement system. These professional development opportunities may be offered at the state, regional, or local level and should be available to all non-LEA providers.
  4. Ensure program funding levels allow providers in all settings to meet high quality standards and retain qualified staff with compensation commensurate to their education and experience. Funding levels impact the amount providers can pay teachers and, in turn, their ability to retain qualified staff.
  5. Support coordinated enrollment across the mixed delivery system to ensure family choice and provider stability. States can play a role in ensuring that preschool options are clearly communicated to families and enrollment processes are organized in a way that is efficient and equitable.
  6. Collect data and conduct research to understand families’ access to high-quality preschool in different settings. Enrollment data disaggregated by program setting and child demographics can shed light on the extent to which children with different abilities and from different racial and ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds are enrolling in different settings. More research is needed to better understand how families choose preschool programs and the extent to which enrollment disparities reflect family preference or other barriers that should be remedied, such as availability of full-day care.

State Preschool in a Mixed Delivery System: Lessons From Five States by Karin Garver, G. G. Weisenfeld, Lori Connors-Tadros, Katherine Hodges, Hanna Melnick, and Sara Plasencia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

The National Institute for Early Education Research conducted this study with support from the Learning Policy Institute.

Funding for this research was provided by the Ballmer Group, Heising-Simons Foundation, and David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.

Updated March 24, 2023. Revisions are noted here.