Cute young African American kid girl drawing or painting with colored pencil. Kindergarten children education, or preschool child study at home concept

Successful starts

The Southern Education Foundation’s commitment to early childhood education and caregiving has been evident throughout our organization’s 157-year history — from funding some of the first schools for Black children in the South, to championing kindergarten in our states in the mid-20th century.

SEF’s Miles to Go series and other reports over the years have monitored the region’s progress in expanding high-quality pre-K programs and other early childhood services.

Today’s challenges include the costs and shortages of high-quality child care, limited access to pre-K and Head Start programs for 3 and 4 year olds in some states (especially for children of color and those from low-income families), and issues of low pay and staff shortages for early childhood caregivers. SEF is focused on eliminating these lingering disparities in our early learning system today.

Key facts on early childhood issues in our region:

  • The South is home to 60% of the nation’s Black children under age 5 and nearly 50% of children in low-income working families, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS Count report. While many of the 17 states in the SEF region were national pacesetters in the expansion of early childhood education by pioneering statewide public pre-K programs, only about 40% of the region’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in free public pre-K programs in 2021-22.
  • Black and Hispanic children often start kindergarten behind in early literacy skills compared to their White peers. Only about 15% of Black children access high-quality early learning programs in the South. Many Black and Hispanic children eligible for Head Start programs are not served by the program.
  • Child care has also become a major issue in the South and across the country. Child-care subsidies only reach one in seven eligible children in the U.S. In 10 SEF states, average annual infant-care costs surpass average in-state tuition costs at public four-year colleges.

Our latest news and resources on early childhood issues:


SEF launches Southern Early Childhood Education Justice network

Blog: Why early childhood advocates oppose new draft Head Start regulations

In letter, early education advocates urge caution on proposed Head Start regulations

‘Advancing Early Childhood Learning’: One of SEF’s major Public Policy Priorities


Blog: Steps toward more affordable child care

Blog: Why SEF is urging more federal support for early care 

Blog: Why states are facing up to the rising costs of child care

Blog: Child care is a ‘fill-in-the-blank’ issue that impacts all