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What the U.S. Can Learn from Brazil's Less-Than-Universal Preschool

In 2009, Brazil became one of only three countries to mandate early education. But it quickly found that universal preschool is a simple idea that’s difficult to implement.

The Montes Claros nursery in Brazil.
The Montes Claros nursery in Brazil.
Dennis Thern/Star of Hope
This story is part of Governing's annual International issue.

When Claudia Costin became education secretary for the city of Rio de Janeiro in 2009, she saw firsthand the problem governments face when they mandate universal preschool: It’s a simple idea that’s difficult to implement.

“I was sometimes shocked,” she says, reflecting on her first visits to preschools in her municipality. “Some rooms didn’t have any letter reading. Kids were just coloring inside the lines and not even playing with appropriate toys.” Building puzzles, oral storytelling and other key components of early education were strikingly absent. Costin’s observations echo findings by Brazil’s Ministry of Education, which rated more than three-quarters of the country’s early education institutions in 2010 as below “adequate” based on international standards.

All this may come as a surprise to many in the world’s early education community, because Brazil receives positive attention across the globe for being one of only three countries to mandate public education for children under 5 years old. In 2009 national lawmakers even enshrined the right to preschool in the constitution, the latest in a series of reforms spanning three decades. Those changes have led to gradual gains in preschool enrollment, from about 52 percent in 1999 to 81 percent in 2009. During the same period, class sizes shrank and a higher proportion of teachers earned graduate-level degrees.

But despite those gains, the country has struggled to set up the preschool system it wants. Many of the schools fail to meet regulations, and the quality of teachers varies dramatically. Enrollment rates differ by state and region. Schools are sparse in rural areas. National funding isn’t targeted enough to poor municipalities. The cumulative result is an uneven system that still isn’t adequately reaching the children who stand to benefit the most from early education.


Note: Creche access is the enrollment rate in schools for children aged 0-3. Preschool access is the enrollment rate in schools for children aged 4-5. Source: Pesquisa Nacional Por Amostra de Domicilios, 2009


Many within the United States would like to see the American education system follow Brazil’s lead in enacting a bold expansion of public preschool. President Obama called for universal preschool in his last two State of the Union addresses and his March budget proposal. In the past year, several governors and state lawmakers, along with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have proposed state or local expansions. While legislation has no hope of passing in Congress this year, a recent national poll found that a majority of registered voters in both the Democratic and Republican parties would be willing to support a higher federal tobacco tax to fund nationalized public preschool.

American state legislatures have made incremental expansions to preschool for decades, but the latest data from the National Institute for Early Education Research found that less than a third of eligible 4-year-olds attended public preschool in 2012. Enrollment ranged from 79 percent in Florida to zero in Wyoming, one of 10 states with no public preschool at all. When looking at all types of preschool, including private programs, enrollment is higher, but still only about two-thirds of 4-year-olds attend preschool, and wealthy families enroll their children at higher rates than poor families. “We’re a long way from leveling the playing field,” says MaryLee Allen, policy director for the Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy group in favor of nationalized public preschool.

Allen and other proponents claim that universal preschool would narrow income inequality, boost college attendance and reduce crime rates. While some states and cities have long experimented with preschool, the latest proposals call for public preschool at a much larger scale. At a time when talk about early public education is all the rage, Brazil offers valuable lessons about its benefits and limitations.

In the United States, most proposals for universal preschool entail a full-day, voluntary program available to children beginning at age 4, sometimes age 3, but not younger. “It’s starting too late,” says Russ Whitehurst, director of education policy at the Brookings Institution. By contrast, many countries approach early childhood education as a continuous public service that begins before the child turns 1. The Brazilian model, for example, includes preschool for 4- and 5-year-olds, but also creches, which are education-oriented day-care centers for children ages 0 to 3. Because Brazilian educators target children at an earlier age, some research suggests they’re more likely to impact children’s cognitive development. By that measure, at least, the United States has something to learn from Brazil.

But Brazil’s universal preschool system remains an imperfect model and one Americans should approach with caution. When the Ministry of Education evaluated preschools and creches in six capital cities in Brazil, it found that only one city had preschools on par in quality with those in Germany, Portugal and the United States. A 2012 study of Brazil by the World Bank found disproportionate rates of low enrollment among poor children in preschools and creches, an unfortunate fact since research shows that poor children experience the largest gains from these type of programs.


While Brazil’s preschool enrollment data show disparities based on family income, they also reveal a rural/urban divide. Early childhood education facilities in rural areas are less likely to have bathrooms, running water and electricity, according to a 2007 assessment by the country’s Ministry of Education. Rural areas also tend to have long and complicated routes to creches and preschools, leading some parents to leave their children at home. In fact, even the wealthiest 40 percent of rural children enroll at lower rates than the poorest 40 percent of urban children, according to the World Bank.

Perhaps a bigger problem is a flawed system for funding early education. All Brazilian municipalities are legally required to spend a quarter of their budgets on education, but they have wide discretion on how much to invest in early education. Wealthier municipalities tend to invest more in preschools and creches. Making matters worse, the federal funding formula distributes money evenly among wealthy and poor states, even though some regions don’t need as much federal support. Not surprisingly, major regional differences in the investment in early childhood education are readily apparent. Brazil’s Southeast region, for example, spends 6.7 times more per pupil on public early childhood education than the relatively poor North region does.


The Montes Claros creche is targeted to poor children in the region. (Dennis Thern/Star of Hope)

Some places around the United States aren’t waiting for Congress to decide whether it wants a Brazil-like public preschool system. San Antonio, Texas, the seventh most populous American city, launched public preschool for 4-year-olds last fall after voters approved a 1/8-cent sales tax to fund early education -- about $8 per year for the median income household. The city manager’s office estimates that about 2,300 children are not currently enrolled in any preschool program and another 3,400 only attend half-day preschool.


While the centers are under the city’s direct supervision, more than half of the children projected to participate in the San Antonio model will attend private, charter or nonprofit community-based preschool. Kathy Bruck, CEO of San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA program, acknowledges that San Antonio may run into some of the problems of the Brazilian system, where the quality of instructors and curriculum would vary widely by neighborhood and provider. “We’re still finding ourselves,” she says. “Our board and our mayor believe strongly in innovation. They say, ‘You’re going to make some mistakes. Just acknowledge it, drop it and fix it.’”

For instance, the city is still determining the appropriate student-to-teacher ratio in a preschool classroom, something currently not set by state or federal law. Bruck also expects both the curriculum and the evaluation tools for measuring students to evolve as a result of universal preschool.

Since the November 2012 election, San Antonio has built two preschool centers, and last fall, it enrolled 700 students. Within the next two years, the city plans to open an additional two centers and use competitive grants to expand early education through other preschool providers, such as charter schools. By 2021, Bruck hopes to reach an annual enrollment of 3,700 students, still only a small fraction of the city’s preschool age population.

If the Brazilian experience is any barometer, a national mandate would not eliminate the need for American cities like San Antonio to experiment with implementing public preschool. One Brazilian municipality, Santarém, has developed its own environmental curriculum with outdoor activities. Campinas, another municipality, orients lesson plans around dance. Rio de Janeiro, under Costin, wrote its own preschool curriculum and hired new teachers with prior training in early education. School administrators in Rio learned that some parents wouldn’t drop off their children for day care during the week, either because schools were too far away or because families could ask a grandparent to watch their children on workdays. The city decided to set up Saturday programs where parents could receive training and staff could monitor children’s brain development and play habits. “It’s not easy to establish a new educational system,” Costin says. “We have to have a mix of solutions for different families.”


**Source for "A Measure of Quality" graph: Fundacao Carlos Chagas

**Source for "Brazil's Journey to Universal Pre-k: World Bank"

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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