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Research shows that the early years are the best time for children to learn tolerance and respect for kids from other races, cultures and backgrounds. But that’s not happening nearly enough, according to a new report. That’s because preschools and day cares are deeply segregated on average — even more so than K-12 schools. The report, released this week by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, found that early learning programs are twice as likely to be nearly 100 percent black or Hispanic than kindergarten and first grade classrooms. Considering the fact that ethnic and racial preferences and biases are learned at an early age, this segregation can have a long-term impact on children and can “lead to missed opportunities for contact and kinship during a critical point in child development,” the authors argue.

A large portion of the segregation data can be attributed to home-based childcare and preschool programs, which include informal relative caregivers, licensed home-based preschools and nannies. Home-based settings are less formal and often serve social and family groups, according to researcher Erica Greenberg, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “These patterns of segregation layer on top of residential segregation that’s been documented for a very long time,” Greenberg said. Home-based programs also have fewer resources for outreach so they may rely on the social networks of parents, which tend to be segregated. Home-based programs are 30 percent more segregated than center-based programs, which include private preschools and public school-based pre-K programs.

Here’s a look at more findings from this report:

  • More than half of early childhood programs have either less than 10 percent or more than 90 percent black or Hispanic enrollment, according to calculations by the authors. (Note: authors only looked at programs that serve at least five children).
  • Early ed programs are most segregated in the Northeast and least segregated in the Midwest. Segregation levels are similar in the South and the West. Greenberg said these findings mirror K-12 segregation patterns. She also pointed out that maternal labor force participation rates are high in the Northeast, so “needs for childcare are layered on top of these segregated education and residential systems.”
  • Early childhood education is 20 percent more segregated than high school, and segregation declines as students move from early ed toward high school graduation. The authors suggest that intentional desegregation efforts and larger school catchment areas may help with integration in older grades.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about home based childcare was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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