Pre-K for Military Children

The Idea

Automatically qualify military children to participate in government-sponsored pre-Kindergarten programs.

The Issue

It’s no surprise that military families want quality pre-school programs for their children; early childhood education is proven to help all children succeed. Pre-K Now, a project of the Pew Center for the States, reports that quality pre-K programs:

  • reduce grade repetition among first graders by 30 percent after one year of enrollment and 50 percent after two years
  • save school districts about $3,700 per child over the course of the K-12 years
  • return more than $7 for every $1 invested

Pre-K programs are designed to introduce children, ages 3-5, to basic social and academic concepts that prepare them to succeed in school. Children who attend pre-K are also 29 percent more likely to complete high school and contribute to their surrounding communities, and are 44 percent less likely to repeat a grade.

Military children, 40 percent of whom are under the age of 5, benefit from pre-K because it provides them with a solid foundation for their later school years, when most will change schools an average of 6-9 times. Pre-K may be especially valuable for military children because it provides stability and support to help them cope with the stresses associated with relocations and parental deployment.

And the Department of Defense suggests that finding young military children safe spaces to learn and grow is actually a vital national security issue because it improves operational readiness for deployed parents. In a DoD survey, 44 percent of service members cited such care as the most needed issue, while 49 percent of deployed service members cite it as such.

Military families are often excluded from early childhood education benefits because they do not meet eligibility requirements for some state-sponsored programs. Some pre-K programs require the family to be a state resident, which is a requirement that many military families cannot meet. Additionally, other pre-K eligibility requirements, such as low income, are not always consistent between states.  Some states, for example, take military housing allocations into account when calculating income, which would disqualify some families.  

The Pew Center on the States found that 29 percent of military families cite cost as the biggest barrier for military children in need of pre-K programs, while another 29 percent cite waiting lists, and 11 percent cited quality issues. Only 18 percent of those surveyed said they encountered no major barriers to attaining early childhood education and care.

What States are Doing



Arkansas amended the eligibility guidelines for the Arkansas “Better Chance” pre-k program in 2007 by exempting children of active duty personnel from the state’s low-income requirement.



California, the state with the largest military-connected population in the country, changed its state law to make it easier for military families to enroll in state-funded free pre-k programs. These programs no longer count military housing allowances when calculating income eligibility.



Kansas’ state Department of Education operates two free, state-run pre-K programs, which early childhood experts consider one of the best state models for incorporating military children.    

The first, the Pre-K Pilot Program, is administered with funding from the Children’s Initiative Fund. This fund was started with money from tobacco settlements. Active duty military families are automatically qualified to enroll in this program.

The second, the Four-Year-Old At-Risk program, serves children from families that present a variety of risk factors, including children from single-parent families, children of teen parents, children from limited English proficiency households, and children with developmental or academic delays. In some cases, military families meet at least one these criteria.


North Carolina

North Carolina expanded eligibility for its “More at Four” pre-k program to children of active duty personnel in 2007. Since the policy change took effect, four counties with significant military family populations saw pre-k enrollment double, and Onslow County, home of Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, experienced a 10-fold increase in pre-k attendance.



Texas began automatically including military children in groups eligible for state-funded pre-schools in 2006. The state defines eligibility as having one or more active duty or activated or mobilized National Guard or Reserve parent. Children also qualify if a parent was wounded or killed in action. Once enrolled, children remain eligible, even if parental status changes during the course of their enrollment.  


  • Howard Morrison
    Texas Education Agency
    Federal & State Education Policy