A few weeks ago, the feel-good Internet meme of the moment was a video showing two toddlers—one black, one white—running toward each other on a sidewalk, squealing with joy and with their arms outstretched, landing in a big hug. One of the things that made the video so compelling—for me, at least—was that it offered a hopeful portrait of cross-racial friendship. But sadly, of all the toddler hugs happening across the country on any given day, chances are that not that many of them reflect this sort of bond.

New data analysis out this week from Urban Institute researchers Erica Greenberg and Tomas Monarrez shows that early childhood settings are among the most racially segregated educational spaces in our country. Greenberg and Monarrez looked at data for all center-based and home-based early childhood programs enrolling at least five children, from birth to preschool, included in the federally funded 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education. This includes day care centers, private preschools, public pre-K, and Head Start programs, as well as family child care providers, nannies, and informal care arrangements such a relative or neighbor providing child care for children. Using the “index of dissimilarity”—a measure of how many children from one group would have to move programs in order to create an even distribution of children from two different groups (in this case, looking at a combined group of black and Latinx students versus all other students)—the researchers compared levels of segregation in early childhood settings versus elementary, middle, and high schools. Based on this measure, the researchers found that early childhood education was 13 percent more segregated than elementary school education, and 20 percent more segregated than high school education.This is deeply troubling, because elementary school and high school education are themselves already incredibly segregated.

These high levels of racial segregation in early childhood education are likely in large part byproducts of the socioeconomic segregation that occurs for households raising children. The early education landscape in the United States is severely fractured, with many low-income families placing their children in publicly funded programs with strict income cut-offs, while higher-income families are placing their children in private programs that are unaffordable for working families.

These high levels of racial segregation in early childhood education are likely in large part byproducts of the socioeconomic segregation that occurs for households raising children.

Moreover, even when all families have access to universal public early education, such as through state or city universal pre-K programs, racial segregation levels can still be high. For example, although New York City’s recently implemented universal pre-K program enrolls an overall racially and ethnically diverse student body, analysis of enrollment data for the first year of the newly expanded program (2014–2015) reveals that most pre-K classrooms are not reflective of such diversity. In fact, one-sixth of all pre-K classrooms have enrollments where more than 90 percent of students come from the same racial or ethnic group, and just one in five classrooms is highly racially diverse, with no racial or ethnic group comprising more than 50 percent of enrollment.

It does not have to be this way. The obstacles to racial and socioeconomic integration in early education are indeed many, ranging from broader societal issues such as residential segregation to the minutiae of the idiosyncratic bookkeeping requirements for different state, federal, and local public programs. Nevertheless, integrated early childhood programs that blend different funding streams (such as the pre-K program at Morris Jeff Community School, a charter school in New Orleans) or combine universal access with clear priorities for diversity (such as the early childhood classrooms in Hartford’s interdistrict magnet schools) are possible.

Later this month, The Century Foundation and Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center—which houses a pioneering early childhood program that serves 250 children and blends funding sources to create classrooms that reflect the socioeconomic diversity of New York City—are hosting an event to discuss the causes of segregation in early education and address policy solutions for a path forward to promote integration.

This work to advance integration in early education in New York City and beyond matters, because we have strong research documenting the benefits of diverse classrooms for children of all ages, including recent research specifically focused on preschool children. Studies show that children learn more, in academic and social measures, when they have the chance to interact with peers who have different backgrounds and experiences. And these peer effects may be especially strong for young children in early education settings, for whom much of the day is spent in play and exploration alongside their peers.