Moving the U.S. towards a more universal, high-quality early education system

Lane Kenworthy, a well-known comparative sociologist of inequality issues at the University of Arizona, has a thought-provoking blog post on why the U.S. should more towards a high-quality early education system.

Based on his own extensive knowledge of Scandinavian social welfare systems, Kenworthy advocates that the U.S. move towards an early childhood system similar to the systems used in Denmark and Sweden.  This system would include: paid parental leave during a child’s first year; high-quality child care and preschool from ages 1 to 5, with parents paying fees capped at 10% of income, and with the rest of the costs of this high-quality system being supported by a government subsidy. He roughly estimates that such a system would cost about 1% of U.S. GDP, or $160 billion in annual spending.

I agree with Kenworthy’s policy goals, and think he provides some valuable comparative evidence, as well as summarizing much research on this issue. Therefore, perhaps the most important point of this comment is that you should read his blog post and the research underlying Kenworthy’s blog post.

I have a few comments on Kenworthy’s article that I would add.

First, Kenworthy comments that it’s too early to tell whether the universal preschool programs in Oklahoma and Georgia have had long-run effects. I would add, as I’ve detailed in a previous post, that it’s more difficult than our intuition would tell us to detect statistically significant effects of even large benefits from case studies of the experiences of one or two other states. There are simply too many factors driving aggregate educational and economic performance.

Therefore, evaluations of the quality of the research evidence for early childhood programs should rest more on well-done studies of what happens to program participants and their families compared to similar non-participants.  Aggregate studies of impact are more difficult to get precise results.

Second, Kenworthy wonders whether we can detect effects of universal early education systems on long-run growth. I regard the issue of whether early education, or education in general, affects growth rates, as opposed to levels of income and earnings, as of great importance. My own research has been quite conservative and simply assumed that improving job skills via early childhood education has effects on productivity levels and earnings levels.  But if one instead assumes that these programs affect growth rates in productivity and earnings, then the resulting long-run returns to these programs can be many multiples of what I assume. This is documented in the work by Bill Dickens and his colleagues in applying various economic growth models to early childhood programs.

The problem is that such effects on economic growth are quite lagged, and therefore it will always be hard to link economic growth effects with a specific policy. However, even a very small effect on annual economic growth rates will over the long-run yield huge benefits. Therefore, I regard trying to detect such long-run growth effects a topic worthy of sustained research attention.

Third, Kenworthy argues that in addition to government subsidies for early education, we also need government to directly provide early education, because “that’s the only way to guarantee universal access to preschool and care that’s above an acceptable quality threshold.” I don’t know if the research evidence for this statement is clear. I could imagine a charter system or voucher system for early education that could be universal and of high quality. The question is whether the politics of charter systems or voucher systems leads to pressure to water down quality standards and universality, as such systems can be gamed to provide larger benefits for middle-class groups and private providers.  I would be willing to be persuaded that some public provision is essential, but I think this requires more research evidence and a more extended argument.

Finally, I would argue that although a universal system from birth to age 5 is desirable, the best in this case may be the enemy of the good. I think there is a significant argument that the goal of a universal early childhood system may need to be reached by gradual steps towards that goal. A reasonable first step may be to move towards universal access to full-day preschool at age 4, which would cost less than one-fifth of the price tag for Kenworthy’s ideal system. The lower price tag makes this first step more politically achievable.

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that preschool by itself probably has among the highest benefit-cost ratios for effects on child development for a wide variety of children. Rates of return for child development effects of child care are certainly high enough to justify public subsidy, but tend to be somewhat lower than for preschool because of the high cost of comprehensive child care for several years. Furthermore, the child development benefits of child care subsidies may be more targeted on the disadvantaged that is true of preschool, which provides services that are difficult for almost all parents to provide on their own.

At the same time, we should keep the ideal of a universal comprehensive early childhood system in mind. What is politically practical changes with the times. There may be opportunities that arise to enhance the quality of America’s child care system, and to better manage and coordinate the complex array of child care subsidies through both government agencies and the tax system. Kenworthy’s article provides a good description of an ideal that is attainable, if we have the political will.

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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