U.S. lags in international comparisons of pre-school enrollment and public investment

OECD recently released its 2012 edition of Education at a Glance, which compares education statistics across leading industrial countries.  (OECD stands for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It was originally set up to help administer the Marshall Plan. It has evolved into an organization concerned with economic issues in leading industrial countries.)

As pointed out by Catherine Rampell of the New York Times, and by Education Week, the latest statistics show the U.S. clearly to be lagging in both preschool enrollment and preschool spending.  For example, the U.S. is 28th out of 38 countries in the percentage of 4-year olds in preschool education. The U.S. is 25th out of 35 countries in the percentage of 3-year olds in preschool education.  (Source, OECD, Table C2.1)

To match the OECD average, the U.S. would have to expand the number of 4-year-olds in preschool by 17%, and the number of 3-year-olds in preschool by 29%. Because 45% of U.S. preschool enrollment is unsubsidized private preschool, in order to meet the gap with the OECD average by expanding publicly subsidized slots, we would need to expand publicly subsidized slots by over 30% for 4-year olds and over 50% for 3-year olds.

Leading countries in preschool enrollment include Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. In these countries, preschool enrollment at age 4 and age 3 is well over 80% and frequently over 90%. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of this enrollment is in publicly subsidized slots.

For the U.S. to match the leading countries, and get to 90% preschool enrollment at age 4, we would need to more than double the number of publicly subsidized slots. To get to 90% preschool enrollment at age 3, we would have to more than triple the number of publicly subsidized slots.

The U.S. also lags in preschool spending. For example, the U.S. has public spending of  less than 0.4% of its Gross Domestic Product on early childhood education (The OECD figures for the U.S. include some public subsidies for child care as well as preschool, unlike most of the figures for other countries.) In contrast, Sweden, for example, spends more than 0.7% of its GDP on early childhood education. (Source, Table C2.2 in Education at a Glance).

The quality of a country’s labor force is increasing in importance in what it means for a country’s wages and economic prosperity.  The U.S. is lagging behind other leading countries in its investments in early childhood education access and quality.

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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