Ranking the Early Education Systems in America 2024

Published On: July 2nd, 2024·By ·


early education

Where parents choose to raise a family often depends on the quality of preschool options available, as early education can greatly benefit young children. Multiple studies have suggested that prioritizing preschool enrollment can significantly contribute to a child's long-term academic achievement.

According to the National Education Association, children who participate in early education programs are more likely to be academically prepared for future grades, have higher graduation rates, and have greater earning potential than those who do not.

A study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found that children who attended pre-K full-time performed better on math and literacy tests than students who only attended part-time.

Since state-run early education programs vary across the country, this article has identified the best and worst states for parents interested in knowing how each compares to others in terms of pre-K facilities available. 

Based on the latest official data, we have compared 44 states across three key categories: access (enrollment rates), quality (standards and safety measures), and resources and economic support (financial investments).

We have also ranked the states across specific metrics within those three categories. The data set includes the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled, the percentage of quality benchmarks met, and the total reported spending per child in pre-K.

*Note: The article does not include a comparison of six states, namely Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Wyoming, due to the absence of state-funded pre-K programs there.

Key Findings

  • West Virginia stands out with the highest overall score, excelling particularly in access to early education. 
  • Arkansas, though not leading in any single category, showcases balanced strengths across all metrics. 
  • Meanwhile, states like New Jersey and California demonstrate high resource allocation but vary in accessibility and quality measures.
  • Vermont has the highest percentage of 3 and 4-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K (134.41%), which is 32 times higher than in Utah, where the percentage is the lowest (4.20%).
  • Rhode Island, Mississippi, Michigan, Alabama, and Hawaii have the highest percentage of benchmarks met (100%), compared to Wisconsin and Alaska, which have the lowest (20%).
  • New Jersey has the highest total spending per child enrolled in preschool ($16,302), which is 5 times more than Florida, which has the lowest ($3,142).
  • Interestingly, Florida has had the highest year-on-year increase in total spending per child (27.04%). 

Ten States with Highly Regarded Early Education Programs in America

Ranking State Final Access Score Final Quality Score Final Resources & Economic Support Score Total Score
1 West Virginia 85.0 74.1 69.6 76.2
2 Arkansas 75.7 72.9 78.3 75.7
3 Vermont 83.7 71.7 70.7 75.4
4 New Jersey 61.0 83.8 79.5 74.8
5 Rhode Island 67.1 85.0 69.1 73.7
6 Nebraska 66.5 81.4 71.1 73.0
7 Kentucky 72.5 72.9 70.7 72.0
8 Maryland 59.7 82.6 71.3 71.2
9 Maine 67.2 74.1 71.7 71.0
10 Mississippi 69.1 75.3 67.3 70.6
  1. West Virginia

West Virginia tops the list with an overall score of 76.2. It has the best access score of 85 for ensuring a high enrollment of 3 and 4-year-olds in state preschool programs. Besides, the state's quality score of 74.1 and resources score of 69.6 point to well-maintained standards and solid financial support.

  1. Arkansas

Arkansas ranks second with an overall score of 75.7 and showcases balanced strengths across all three categories. It makes a significant financial investment in early education programs, earning it a score of 78.3 in the resources and economic support category. Its access score (75.7) reflects good enrollment rates, and the quality score (72.9) indicates robust standards and safety measures. 

  1. Vermont

Vermont secures the third position with an overall score of 75.4. It has an impressive access score of 83.7, which means a large number of young children are enrolled in pre-K programs here. Furthermore, the state's quality score of 71.7 and resources and economic support score of 70.7 highlight well-maintained safety standards and sufficient financial backing.

  1. New Jersey

New Jersey ranks fourth with an overall score of 74.8. It has an excellent quality score of 83.8, the second highest among all US states. This underscores the state's commitment to maintaining high standards and safety measures in early education programs. The resources and economic support score of 79.5 further shows significant financial investment in the programs. However, New Jersey could do better in terms of enrollment rates, as its access score of 61 puts it in the middle of the list in this category.

  1. Rhode Island

Rhode Island holds the fifth position with an overall score of 73.7. The state's quality score of 85 is the highest in the country, showcasing top-notch standards and safety measures in early education. The access score of 67.1 and the resources and economic support score of 69.1 are a bit lower than in some top states, so Rhode Island may consider improving in these areas.

  1. Nebraska

Nebraska ranks sixth with an overall score of 73. Its quality score of 81.4 and resources and economic support score of 71.1 reflect strong standards and safety measures as well as decent investment in place within the state's early education system. Enrollment rates in pre-K programs could, however, be improved, as indicated by the moderate access score of 66.5.

  1. Kentucky

Kentucky is in seventh place with an overall score of 72. The state exhibits consistent performance across all categories, with an access score of 72.5, a quality score of 72.9, and a resources and economic support score of 70.7. These scores suggest good enrollment rates, quality standards, and adequate financial investment in early education. Despite being ranked in the bottom half of the top 10, Kentucky's balanced approach ensures comprehensive early learning opportunities for its young children.

  1. Maryland

Maryland makes it to the eighth position with an overall score of 71.2. Its impressive quality score of 82.6 shows strong standards and safety measures in place in state pre-K programs. The resources and economic support score of 71.3 further highlights sufficient financial backing. However, Maryland's access score of 59.7 suggests lower enrollment rates compared to other top states and a need for improvement in this category.

  1. Maine

Maine ranks ninth with an overall score of 71. The state performs best in terms of resources and economic support, earning it a score of 71.7. Its access score of 67.2 and quality score of 74.1 both indicate decent enrollment rates and quality standards in state pre-K programs. 

  1. Mississippi

Mississippi rounds up the top 10 with an overall score of 70.6. The state performs well in the early education quality category, scoring 75.3. Its access score of 69.1 and the resources and economic support score of 67.3 also indicate good enrollment rates and sufficient financial backing. 

States in specific metrics within key indicators:

Access to Early Education:

West Virginia: 

West Virginia is the top state for early education access, with a stellar score of 85. This achievement is a result of impressive enrollment rates across various programs:

  • 73.43% of 3 and 4-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K programs
  • 37.29% enrolled in Head Start programs
  • 19.83% receiving special education services

These figures showcase West Virginia's dedication to making early education widely available, ensuring a significant portion of young children have the opportunity to thrive in early learning environments.

Quality of Early Education 

Rhode Island:

Rhode Island takes the crown for early education quality, achieving a perfect score (100%) by meeting established benchmarks. The state is dedicated to ensuring school safety entities, mandatory safety plans for schools, and regular safety audits of facilities. This comprehensive approach translates to a final quality score of 85, setting a high bar for other states to emulate.

Resources and Economic Support in Early Education


California ranks highest in resources and economic support for early education, with a final score of 85. The state spends $15,554 per child, a substantial investment, and has seen a significant year-on-year (YoY) spending increase of 19.12%. This high level of financial commitment underscores California's dedication to providing strong early education infrastructure and support, making it a leader in this category.


The report highlights the diverse strengths in early education systems across the US, showcasing how states like West Virginia, Arkansas, and Vermont provide comprehensive programs with high enrollment rates, quality standards, and substantial financial investment. These states serve as exemplary models, illustrating the positive impact that well-rounded early education initiatives can have on young children's development and future success.

The varied approaches and innovations seen across different states underscore the importance of sharing best practices and collaborating to enhance early education nationwide. By learning from the achievements of top-ranking states, policymakers and educators can identify strategies to further support and improve early education systems everywhere.

This report serves as an inspiration for continuous improvement, encouraging states to build on their successes and invest in the future of their youngest citizens. Through collective efforts and a shared commitment to excellence, we can create a robust foundation for lifelong learning and achievement for children across the United States.


This report outlines the methodology used to rank all 50 U.S. states based on the quality of their early education systems. We considered three key categories that contribute to the overall quality of early education:

  1. Access: This category focuses on the enrollment of 3 and 4-year-olds in various early education programs.
  2. Quality: This category assesses the standards and safety measures in place within the early education system.
  3. Resources & Economic Support: This category examines the financial investment and economic changes impacting early education.

Data Acquisition and Normalization:

We compiled data from various sources relevant to each category. To ensure a fair comparison across all states, we employed a normalization technique. This process transformed the data points within each category to a common scale (40 to 100) while preserving the relative differences between them.

Scoring and Weighting:

For each category, specific metrics that contribute to its overall score were identified. Each metric was assigned a weight reflecting its relative importance in determining the quality of a state's early education system. Weights are subjectively assigned based on expert opinion and the significance of each metric.

Calculating the Final Score:

We first calculated a score for each category by:

  1. Normalizing the individual data points within the category to a scale of 40 to 100.
  2. Multiplying each normalized value by its corresponding weight.
  3. Summing the weighted values to obtain a category score.

The category scores were then normalized (40 to 85) to create a final score for each state. This final score represents a composite measure of a state's overall quality in early education.

Finally, the overall ranking of states was determined by taking the mean of the final scores from all three categories (Access, Quality, and Resources & Economic Support).

Data Sources:

Methodology: Further Details

Weight Distribution

  1. The actual scores are padded to 40-85 to get more realistic-looking scores.
  2. Weights for each feature are as below and are taken to be a bit more subjective:
Category Feature Weight
Access Percentage of 3 and 4-year-olds Enrolled in State Pre-K 0.33
Percentage of 3 and 4-year-olds Enrolled in Head Start in state 0.33
Percentage of 3 and 4-year-olds Receiving Special Education in state 0.33
Quality Percentage of Benchmarks Met 0.25
Does the state have a state-level school safety entity, office, or board? 0.25
Are school safety plans required? 0.25
Are safety audits of school facilities required? 0.25
Resources & Economic Support All-Reported Spending per Child (2023 Dollars) 0.6
YoY Change on All-Reported Spending per Child 0.4

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