Who Wins the Preschool Lottery? Applicants and Application Patterns in DC Public Prekindergarten
Since 2014, the District of Columbia has used an annual common application to place new students from prekindergarten for 3-year-olds (PK3) through 12th grade in DC Public Schools (DCPS) and DC public charter schools. Though K–12 students have the right to attend their in-boundary school, this policy does not extend to students in PK3 or PK4 (prekindergarten for 4-year-olds). Instead, prekindergarten students apply through a common lottery for a spot at one of the District’s public school options.
In the first comprehensive description of DC public prekindergarten applicants and application patterns, we demonstrate that PK3 and PK4 lotteries differ substantially, both in families’ application choices and in outcomes. We find that applicants and matched applicants closely resemble their respective populations of 3- and 4-year-old children in DC, but wait-listed applicants disproportionately represent socioeconomically advantaged 3- and 4-year-old children in DC, as well as families in immigrant communities.
Measuring Applicants and Application Patterns:
To assess applicants and application patterns to DC public prekindergarten programs, we analyzed nearly 40,000 preschool applications submitted to the District of Columbia’s centralized admissions lottery, My School DC, between 2014 and 2018. Using Public Use Microdata Samples from the American Community Survey, we approximated several community characteristics of prekindergarten applicants and their families, including racial and ethnic composition, family structure, immigration status, language spoken at home, disability status, employment status, poverty status, and educational attainment.
- PK3 and PK4 applicants, as well as those matched to a public prekindergarten option, closely resemble the populations of 3- and 4-year-old children in DC. Relative to the PK4 lottery, the PK3 lottery attracts more applicants and has a substantially higher and more stable match rate over time. Across all grades and years, in-boundary preference (awarded only by DCPS schools) is the most common preference status held by matched applicants.
- PK3 match rates are lowest in Ward 3, which does not include any schools offering PK3. PK4 match rates are lowest in Wards 1 and 2. Across both prekindergarten grades, Wards 7 and 8, home to many households with low incomes and communities of color, have the highest match rates.
- Findings suggest that wait-listed applicants differ from matched applicants and all 3- and 4-year-old children in important ways. Wait-listed applicants come from communities with higher shares of Hispanic and white families and lower shares of Black families; higher shares of families with two or no parents and lower shares of families with one parent; higher shares of immigrant families and families speaking languages other than English at home; and higher shares of two-parent full-time working families, families with higher incomes, families with four-year college degrees and at least one vehicle, and families not receiving food stamps.
- Though DC public prekindergarten is a leading example to other state and local education programs, our findings identify gaps that suggest additional research, outreach, and application support can help ensure more equitable access and outcomes for all young children in the preschool lottery.
- Our analysis will form the basis for a broader DC prekindergarten study and be a reference for other preschool programs seeking to use a centralized lottery for equitable prekindergarten access.