Universal pre-K and the Presidential campaign

Prominent bloggers Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias have both linked to Dana Goldstein’s brief blog post suggesting that universal pre-K be a key issue in the Presidential campaign.

Dana Goldstein advocates for high-quality universal pre-K and child care for all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. Although she doesn’t provide a price tag for her proposal, I estimate that a full-day school-year program that was available for free to all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds would probably have a net budgetary cost of at least $60 billion annually. The exact amount would depend upon assumptions about take-up rates, student-teacher ratios, and teacher salaries.

Ms. Goldstein’s argument, which is similar to arguments made in this blog, and by many others, is that universal pre-K would:  develop both academic skills and social skills of many children; increase these children’s future educational attainment and adult skills; provide needed child care for parents; and create hundreds of thousands of jobs for teachers and other staff for these pre-K programs.

Matt Yglesias’s blog post agrees that universal pre-K is a good idea, but argues that it won’t happen. Why? There is no public appetite for higher federal taxes, even for worthy programs, and there are looming federal deficits and financial commitments to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Kevin Drum also agrees that universal pre-K is a good idea, but wants to extend the argument to other early childhood programs, such as nurse home visitation programs and child care at earlier ages. Drum also particularly stresses the importance of these programs’ effects on “non-cognitive skills”, sometimes called “soft skills”, and sometimes called “social skills”.  Drum argues that if we can’t get more revenue, we should be willing to take $100 billion out of K-12 and redirect these funds to early childhood programs.

My reaction to these arguments is that a large-scale, effectively-run federal commitment to universal pre-K is unlikely in at least the short-run and medium-run. I agree with Yglesias that the federal government has a lot else on its plate. Also, with federal funding, it is very hard to get the public to understand the link between the taxes they pay and the benefits they receive. Systems of federal funding under which general tax revenue then is redistributed via states and local governments to local programs tend to become so convoluted that no one understands how they work except policy wonks.  This undermines public support for the programs and for the needed taxation to support these programs, which leads to programs being under-funded.

As for Drum’s argument, I think trying to fund early childhood programs by cutting K-12 is political suicide. To develop political support for early childhood programs, we need to build a broad coalition for programs that will increase labor skills. K-12 is a natural part of that coalition.

What then, can be done? First, at the federal level, we can have a smart, more targeted intervention to support early childhood programs. For example, we could have a federal commitment to provide flexible block grants to states for the following purposes:

  • Capital costs for new preschool centers;
  • Transportation costs for access to preschool;
  • Costs of developing and purchasing pre-K curriculum materials;
  • Teacher training costs;
  • Technical assistance and evaluation based on classroom process evaluations to improve the quality of pre-K programs;
  • A variety of costs related to evaluation of effects of pre-K programs on students, including paying for student assessments and paying for evaluations.

It would still be up to state and local governments and school districts to figure out how to come up with the operating costs for these programs. This would require state and local leaders to build community support for these programs, and explain how increases in state and local taxes would be linked to providing the public with the benefits from expanding these programs.  I think developing such public support would help build long-run sustainability of such programs.

However, if $5 billion annually in flexible federal grants were provided to states for the above purposes, which pay for some of the infrastructure costs, training costs, and evaluation costs of high-quality programs, this would not only help pay for these programs, but encourage the resulting programs to be higher quality.  The federal government would be focused on encouraging higher quality programs, and higher quality evaluations, which is an appropriate federal role, as better information on what works and what doesn’t work has national benefits.

Such a program has some resemblance to the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, but would differ in several respects. First, I think for such a program to be successful, it has to be on a much larger scale than is true for RTT-ELC. Second, I would urge that such a program be more focused specifically on training, development, and evaluation of pre-K programs than is true for RTT-ELC. Finally, I think such a program should be designed as an ongoing commitment for at least a ten-year period.

Second, what if even such a limited federal commitment is politically infeasible? Then I think we go back to the state and local case for universal pre-K. State and local governments have good reasons to do universal pre-K using local resources, without federal funding. These programs pay off for the state and local areas that fund them.  More extensive access to higher-quality pre-K not only benefits the participants in these programs, but also has broad local benefits. The entire local economy benefits from higher skills of former child participants in these programs, which helps attract more and better jobs to the local economy. Furthermore, state and local governments benefit from the higher taxes due to higher earnings per capita, as well as reduced need for spending on special education, the criminal justice system, and welfare programs.

Massive federal spending is not a necessary condition for high-quality universal pre-K.  Given that massive federal spending on universal pre-K is politically unlikely, we need to figure out other ways to get to the goal of universal access to high-quality pre-K programs. Smart but limited federal intervention can help, as can state and local initiatives.

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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