The politics and economics of state versus federal action on early childhood programs

Many are accustomed to seeing federal action as the key to large-scale social reforms. However, in the case of early childhood programs, successful social reform may be more likely to occur due to state and local activism. Such activism can be motivated by concerns over local economic development.

The economic case for state and local activism, versus federal activism, is two-fold. First, as outlined in chapter  10 of my book Investing in Kids, most of the economic development benefits of early childhood programs accrue within the state that carries out the early childhood programs.  For example, based on the calculations in the book, 73% of the economic development benefits of a universal pre-K program accrue within the state implementing universal pre-K. Other states reap 27% of the benefits, due to former child participants moving to other states and increasing the quality of their labor supply. But enough people stay in their home state that most of the increase in labor force quality occurs in the state implementing universal pre-K.

Second, we have yet to fully work out what is the best design and process for early childhood programs.  This argues for flexibility. Such flexibility seems more likely if there are a variety of state and local designs of early childhood programs rather than one single-best federal design.

Of course, flexibility can also be achieved with federal funding, if the funding allows for a variety of program designs. For example, as Ron Haskins   of the Brookings Institution and Steve Barnett   of the National Institute for Early Education Research have recently argued, we could consider allowing some states significantly increased flexibility in using funds from  Head Start, the child care block grant  and Title I to create a coordinated early education system.  Whether the federal government is likely to allow such flexibility is questionable.

The political case for state and local activism, versus federal activism, rests in part on the practicalities of the issues facing the federal government. The federal government faces a structural budget deficit problem, largely driven by increasing health care costs, as has been pointed out by numerous budget observers, such as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein.  Given the fiscal challenges facing the federal government, large-scale expansion of federal funding for early childhood programs seems problematic.

Past precedent also suggests that state and local activism may be needed to significantly expand early childhood programs. As argued by Larry Katz and Claudia Goldin in their book, The Race Between Education and Technology,  the major past educational expansions in the U.S. — the common school movement of the 19th century, and the high school movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century — were driven by grassroots activism. These expansions of education were not due to federal action. They were due to state activism. Average citizens perceived that these educational expansions were in their own enlightened self-interest.

If state and local activism is to fully support early childhood programs, the case for local benefits must be clear. Among the most obvious local benefits of early childhood programs are local economic development benefits.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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