Requirements for becoming a licensed prekindergarten teacher vary greatly depending on the state, school district, source of funding and even classroom location (public school vs. privately owned child care facility). Nearly all states offer some form of publicly funded prekindergarten, although, in many states, funding is limited and serves only some of the state’s 4-year-olds. In these states, early childhood educators may be more likely to work in privately owned child care settings.
Prekindergarten programs often operate in private settings such as privately-owned child care facilities or private schools. If the prekindergarten exists in a private setting, then sometimes licensure is not required, and qualifications are generally based on statutory guidelines. However, these programs would likely operate under child care license requirements and meet requirements for serving kids birth through age 5, not just prekindergarten students. All states offer child care licensing (though this type of license usually applies to the child care facility, not individual teachers). Many states also allow for some degree of “license-exempt” operations, usually for home-based settings.
Education qualifications required for prekindergarten teachers in private settings range from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree. Many states allow state-funded prekindergarten programs to operate within private settings but may require teachers within those classrooms to have the same qualifications as prekindergarten teachers in public settings.
All states maintain a license for public school educators, and this includes prekindergarten teachers who teach in prekindergarten classrooms within public schools. Often states will require prekindergarten teachers to first obtain a common initial license required for all public-school teachers, and then an additional level of certification to be a classroom teacher for early childhood education. For example, a new prekindergarten teacher will need an initial teaching license, plus a certificate to teach birth through kindergarten. The age range covered by the additional certification varies greatly. Sometimes, the prekindergarten teacher may only need to obtain an elementary certification because there is no specific pre-K certification. The additional certification is often offered by the Department of Education; however, in some states, it is offered by a department of health and human services or similar division.
All states have multiple pathways to become licensed, but for new teachers attempting to obtain an initial license, the requirements typically consist of:
- Completion of a bachelor’s degree.
- The bachelor’s degree must be a part of or include a state-approved (or state-designated third-party approved) early childhood educator program.
- Passage of standardized licensing exam.
- Criminal background check.
Additional requirements that often vary among states can include time spent student-teaching in the classroom, GPA requirements, college-level curriculum focused on early childhood learning, abuse training completion and medical vaccinations.
Some public prekindergartens are funded by a federal grant known as Head Start. Head Start promotes school readiness for children under age 5 from low-income households. In some states, Head Start schools make up the only form of government-offered prekindergarten. Head Start programs have their own requirements for teachers. For example, at least 50% of teachers must have at least a bachelor's degree.
Criminal background checks are required for all early education license applicants. The licensing board reviews criminal records during the application reviewal process. In general, a criminal record results in a rejection.
Typically, local school districts may set their own hiring standards for pre-K teachers; however, they may not set licensing standards. To ensure consistent quality, licensing is typically issued at the state level, but there are some exceptions. Example from the National Council on Teacher Quality report:
"In Denver, teachers in district-run schools must have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license, but teachers in the community-run schools follow any of eight different training paths laid out by the Department of Human Services. In Colorado’s state-run programs, teachers are required only to have a Child Development Associates."
The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) facilitates license reciprocity for member states that have signed the NASDTEC Interstate Agreement. The agreement is a collection of individual agreements by member states pledging to “issue some form of authorization allowing an inbound certificate holder to legally teach or provide service in the receiving state, provided the license issued by the ‘sending’ state is acceptable under the agreement.” If the state licenses early childhood educators, then the inbound educators may be eligible for initial or preliminary licenses in states that participate in the agreement.