This paper provides an historical and policy overview of early childhood education in New Zealand. The analysis is framed around the introduction, in July 2007, of the government’s policy of 20 hours-a-week free early childhood education for three and four year old children in teacher-led early childhood programmes. This initiative extended a raft of policies intended to improve quality participation in early childhood as part of the Government’s ten year Strategic Plan Pathways to the Future: Ngã Huarahi Arataki 2002–2012. A key plank of this policy is that by 2012 all adults working in teacher-led services will have teaching qualifications. Realising this has been challenging and the implementation of the ‘20 hours free’ policy became a controversial media story. From age five, all New Zealand children have long had a ‘right as a citizen’ to free schooling. There was a level of expectation from parents that this ‘right’ had been extended to early childhood education. The policy was not so bold. This paper outlines the journey towards matching the rights of the school aged and preschool aged child for free education. The ‘20 hours free’ policy is an important step in the process. The paper concludes with an early commentary on the issues that this policy raises in relation to: the rights of children and parents, the costs of quality, and the conflicting roles of government, community, and private enterprise in the provision of early childhood services.