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Noodle Staff
Noodle Expert Member

December 18, 2019

A 3-minute guide to preschool and child care in Tennessee. Learn about licensing laws, instructor training, and enrollment requirements — everything you need to know to choose the right program for your child.

Takeaway: In Tennessee, there are several different kinds of licensed care, which vary based on child group sizes. The state makes finding licensing information and regulations difficult, as many of these are buried in government documents. Parents should be wary of all unlicensed programs, however, as they are not subject to any government oversight. Public pre-K access across the state varies; it is relatively widespread but not universal. While Governor Bill Haslam will not request federal funds for universal pre-K until Vanderbilt releases a study on its effectiveness, the city of Nashville has implemented its own universal pre-K program, zeroing in on building literacy skills for 4-year-olds.


Tennessee has several types of licensed programs that are similar to the programs in many other states. Unfortunately, Tennessee’s licensing regulations are only accessible{: target="blank" } by way of a series of confusing and complicated legal documents. Tennessee’s database search{: target="blank" rel="nofollow" } can be filtered by county, and results display contact information, capacity, age range, program ratings, and overall quality ratings.

Tennessee has had a voluntary pre-K program since 2005, when it passed the Voluntary Pre-K for Tennessee Act, and spends $85 million{: target="blank" rel="nofollow" } to provide care to more than 18,000 children. The state’s pre-K program primarily targets 4-year-olds from low-income backgrounds. Tennessee does not plan on expanding to universal pre-K until a Vanderbilt study{target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } investigating the effectiveness of state-funded pre-K becomes available in 2019. Nashville{: target="blank" rel="nofollow" } has implemented its own universal pre-K program, which will begin next year. The program was funded through a $55 million federal grant, and will focus on early literacy for 4-year-olds.

Center-Based Care

There are two types of center-based care: child care centers and drop-in centers. Child care centers are the most common form of pre-K in Tennessee and provide care to 13 or more children. Drop-in centers operate on a more part-time basis and provide care to 15 or more children{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }. Drop-in centers, which cannot operate for more than 14 hours a week and seven hours a day, are often forms of after-school or before-school care.

All licensed centers are required{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } to pass fire and health inspections before licensure and to receive regular unannounced inspections. Licenses should be either prominently displayed or provided to parents. Central operators must hold a college degree in early childhood development or a high school diploma and the equivalent in experience. Caregivers must complete a first aid and CPR training session, and they are subject to background checks.

All centers must follow appropriate caregiver-to-child ratios{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }. These are: 1:4 for children ages 6 weeks to 15 months, 1:6 for children ages 12 to 30 months, 1:7 for children ages 24 to 35 months, 1:9 for 3-year-olds, 1:13 for 4-year-olds, 1:16 for 5-year-olds, and 1:20 for school-aged children.

Home-Based Care

There are two forms of home-based care{: target="blank" rel="nofollow" }: family child care homes and group child care homes. Family child care homes provide care for five to seven children; an additional five children may be included if the children are related to the caregiver. Group child care homes provide care for eight to 12 children. One way of choosing the right type of care is by using the state’s quality rating system{: target="blank" rel="nofollow" }, the Star-Quality program{: target="blank" rel="nofollow" }, which is a voluntary program designed to recognize programs that meet and exceed state regulations.

Unlicensed Care

Legally unlicensed care programs are permitted to operate without a license and, as a result, are unregulated. These programs are not subject to licensing standards, inspection visits, or personnel background checks. Legally unlicensed programs{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } include in-home care, care that takes place for fewer than three hours each day, and programs that provide care to fewer than four unrelated children.

Discover Tennessee preschools near you using the free Noodle preschool search, the most comprehensive tool of its kind.