Skip to main content

Documenting Access to Universal Pre-K in Chicago

Report examines pre-K enrollments, capacity, and access for children across the city

Get all our news

Subscribe to newsletter

Enrollment in pre-K across the city declined during COVID-19. While enrollment still hasn’t rebounded in higher-income areas, in low-income neighborhoods it has not only rebounded but also surpassed its pre-COVID level.”

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach
IPR economist

 preschoolers in class with a teacher

When Chicago Public Schools (CPS) expanded to a free, citywide Universal PreK (UPK) program in 2018–19, how did that expansion affect capacity and enrollment in neighborhoods across Chicago—and how did pre-K access vary between neighborhoods?

A new report shows that UPK expansion has led to an increase in Chicago preschoolers enrolling in CPS’ free, full-day programming for 4-year-olds, with some variation in available seats between high- and low-poverty neighborhoods.

IPR developmental psychologist Terri Sabol and economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach examine this issue as part of their growing body of work to understand the full impact of CPS’ UPK expansion in 2018–19.

As Sabol and Schanzenbach find in their December 2023 report, the 2018–19 UPK expansion substantially increased the number of free, full-day pre-K seats in CPS for both 3- and 4-year-olds. By 2023–24, district enrollment hit 77% of capacity, with pre-K students enrolled in 12,225 spots out of a total of 15,862 available—nearly double the 8,071 full-day seats available in 2017–18.

In their April 2024 report, the researchers document how CPS’ 2018–19 UPK expansion varied by neighborhood, with sizeable numbers of children enrolling in both high- and low-poverty areas.

Importantly, the 2018-19 universal expansion was not the first time the city had sought to increase access to free pre-K. Before the UPK expansion, starting in 2013, the city had focused on increasing the number free, full-day programming for 4-year-olds in schools attended by more children from low-income backgrounds, according to a 2020 report.

In seeking to better understand how the expansion affected lower-income and higher-income neighborhoods across the city, the researchers mapped schools by their census tracts and included data from the Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, as well as from the 2015 Child Opportunity Index (COI). The COI encompasses 29 additional indicators of education, health and environment, and social and economic factors. Both measures revealed the same patterns—sizeable enrollment increases for free, full-day pre-K programming in CPS schools in lower- and higher-income areas.

“During the UPK expansion, Chicago was also experiencing population declines, especially among children under age 5 and was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Sabol said. “In this dynamic context with a shifting number of children within neighborhoods, we sought to better understand the extent to which there was equitable access to free, full-day pre-K across neighborhoods in Chicago.”

The researchers note the dampening effect of COVID on pre-K enrollments, which fell to a low point in 2020–21 at the start of the pandemic, and point to a rebound in some areas since then.

“Enrollment in pre-K across the city declined during COVID-19,” Schanzenbach said. “While enrollment still hasn’t rebounded in higher-income areas, in low-income neighborhoods it has not only rebounded but also surpassed its pre-COVID level.”

Overall, there were sizeable increases in enrollment for free, full-day pre-K programming in schools in both lower-income and higher-income areas. Lower-income areas, the researchers show, already had substantial access to free, full-day pre-K in schools, as CPS first targeted them in 2013 prior to the UPK expansion. As a result, enrollment growth in these areas, while still sizeable, was lower than in low-poverty areas because more students were already being served. But today, the number of seats in low-income areas is still higher compared to high-income areas. Thus, UPK programs in low-income neighborhoods have seats available to welcome more 3- and 4-year-olds.

Terri Sabol is associate professor of human development and social policy. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor. Both are IPR fellows and co-direct EC*REACH
Read the report.



Published: April 2, 2024.