How Preschool and Child Care Work: A State-by-State Guide

It’s a familiar scenario. Your family has just welcomed a little one into the world, and now you have to go back to work. You’re probably sleep-deprived, stressed, and anxious — and you’re faced with one of the most consequential decisions of your life: Who should care for your precious child?

The costs of child care can be considerable (in New York City, it is common for preschool tuition to amount to upwards of $2,000 a month), but these are known quantities. What is more difficult to know is whether your child will be lovingly cared for, attended to, stimulated, and — most important of all — safe. It’s difficult to know whether, in an emergency, your child’s teachers will have the presence of mind and first-aid training to mitigate any harm. And it’s often impossible to know exactly what your child will be doing all day.

Click here to find out how preschool works in your state.

There are two key reasons why early education varies so dramatically from one state — and even one facility — to another. First, there are no national standards governing child care for preschool-aged children. Licensing laws vary from strict to lax — and oversight varies even more, with some states conducting regular inspections and others overlooking gross violations. Second, the U.S. does not provide universal access to public preschool programs, despite numerous studies demonstrating the long-term individual and societal benefits of early learning. In fact, the majority of 4-year-olds are not enrolled in a public pre-K — to say nothing of the vast majority of younger children with no public preschool options at all. As of 2013, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Wyoming did not provide any state funds at all to preschool.

In the absence of national early education options and standards, preschool regulations vary significantly by state. Even within a particular state, regulations are byzantine — difficult to uncover and even more difficult to navigate. For instance, more than one state distinguishes between “registered” and “licensed” providers, a distinction that in some cases signifies oversight by differing regulatory agencies, and in others indicates varying application processes for providers. In many places, caregiver-to-child ratios differ depending on the size of the facility and license it holds. And the standards dictating when it is legal to be unlicensed vary depending on where you live.

Information about preschool regulations is typically difficult to find, spread across multiple sources (many of which are hundreds of pages long) and often written in legalese. These sources are not meant for public consumption — meaning that parents have to make the most important decision of their lives given very little context.

Getting to the bottom of how preschool works in each state is no mean feat. A team of education experts at Noodle spent months poring over state regulations, calling state agencies, searching and testing state databases, and researching state child care regulatory histories to cull the most important information for these 51 guides — one for every state, plus the District of Columbia.

What we discovered during the research process ranged from the sublime (North Carolina’s uniquely accessible licensing requirements) to the ridiculous (Connecticut's preschool search tool also serving as a place to find hypnotists and fur breeders), with examples of the worryingly obvious (New Jersey’s declaration that each “center shall ensure that all staff members are trained in the method of keeping track of children”), the confusing (Wyoming’s warning that “if you are caring for more than two children who aren’t related to you, you might have to be licensed”), the mathematically impossible (North Dakota’s standard that 3- and 4-year-olds each “count” as 0.14 people for the purpose of determining caregiver-to-child ratios), the unedited (Montana’s requirement that center directors be “educated or experianced [sic] in early care and education"), the broken (Alaska’s preschool search tool), and the troubling (Louisiana’s limited allowance of corporal punishment for children as young as 2). (Read more about the bizarre preschool rules we discovered during our research process.)

In each guide, we have culled the most important information to give parents a clear, complete, unbiased portrait of how preschool works where they live. For each state, we explain:

  • What it means to be licensed
  • Who oversees and inspects licensed preschool facilities, how often, and where complaints histories and violations reports can be found
  • Which qualifications caregivers must have, what continuing education requirements they must comply with, and how parents can find information about staff backgrounds and criminal record checks
  • How many staff are required in each facility, and what the mandatory caregiver-to-child ratios are for their children’s age groups
  • What information and visitation rights parents have
  • Whether there are legal alternatives to licensing
  • How readily available public preschool and pre-K options are
  • … and more!

Until now, there was no source for finding out what to expect from the preschools you’re considering. We hope that these guides help inform you and make this most important and stressful educational decision-making process easier.

Click on your state to learn about how preschool works where you live.

Once you’ve discovered how preschool works in your state, you can search for licensed preschools where you live using the Noodle preschool search, the most comprehensive tool of its kind.