I was recently asked to give some key reasons why pre-K systems with broad or even universal access make sense. Here are my top 9 reasons.
- Political sustainability. Systems that help income groups that comprise a majority of voters are more likely to be politically sustained at high levels of quality and access.
- Working class and middle class benefits. The empirical evidence increasingly indicates that children from working class and middle class families will get significant benefits from high-quality pre-K programs.
- Gaps in current program availability for working class and middle class. Enrollment in high-quality or subsidized pre-K programs currently follows a U shaped pattern – highest for families with over $100 K in income, who can afford high-quality private preschool, followed by families below the poverty line, who are eligible for Head Start.
- Middle class and working class will find it hard to afford the full cost of high-quality pre-K. The cost of high-quality pre-K is probably $5,000 or more for a half-day school-year program. (See Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Meaningful Investments in Pre-K”.) This is a hefty price for many middle-class families for a program that only covers a portion of child care needs.
- Income integration provides peer spillover benefits. The evidence suggests that pre-K programs that include a variety of income groups can be more effective in delivering benefits to lower-income children.
- Broader long-run economic development benefits from programs that affect a broad section of the future labor force. The economic development case for early childhood programs rests on the notion that such programs may significantly raise the overall labor force quality of a state or local area. Raising overall labor force quality is obviously easier to do with a system that involves a higher percentage of an area’s children.
- Greater short-run economic development benefits from programs that help many parents. Pre-K programs may immediately help the local economy by helping attract parents to a local area, thus expanding the quantity and quality of the area’s labor force. A program with broader eligibility will be more attractive. This greater attractiveness to more parents will also imply greater effects in boosting local property values.
- The needy can be explicitly targeted with a system with broad benefits. If greater targeting on the poor is desired, a system of universal access can provide such targeting by a system of income-contingent fees. Although such systems can be challenging to develop, such a system ideally should both provide greater assistance to the poor and still provide the middle class with sufficient assistance to ensure access.
- Even without explicit targeting, universal systems are substantially redistributive. Even without explicit targeting, a universal system will cause increases in future income for participants that will be a considerably higher percentage of future income for children from lower-income families. Furthermore, given that even regressive tax systems will usually collect higher dollar amounts from upper income groups, the benefit-cost ratios of universal systems for low-income groups will be many times the ratios for middle class and upper income groups.
Good quality pre-K program as a subjective right of each individual child is one part explaining Finland’s famous success in PISA comparisons. The early learning is heavily subsidized by the government, full day care costing to the family maximum of 250 euros/child/month. It was a decision made many years ago, based on the idea of each and every child being equally entitled for early learning experiences, regardless of the socio-economical status of their parents.
The benefits of early learning programs are no news, it was a known fact already in 1550 when cloisters were responsible for public education. From those days derive some of the ideas about public education being the most beneficial way of teaching children how to play a constructive part in their own society.
Yet, the keyword here is play. Children must be set free to play and explore in the early education, not sit in one place and be “taught”. Furthermore, pre-K programs cannot be assessed by their “performance” – just because learning and performing are two opposite ends of a continuum of exploration and intrinsically motivated learning. What children learn, and what they are willing to perform are two totally different things.
My question is: how could we expand the early childhood education that Head Start and other pre-K programs already provide, and make public education become better in the US?