Forum discusses universal versus targeted preschool, age 4 versus earlier age programs, and public school versus private provision of preschool

On May 5, I spoke at in a forum in Minnesota on issues in designing preschool programs. The forum had six speakers with diverse perspectives on how to design early childhood programs.

The context for the discussion was a debate about the future course of Minnesota preschool policy. The policy choices facing Minnesota are similar to the choices facing other states, and therefore the Minnesota debate is relevant to all state and local areas considering expansions of their early childhood education efforts.

Minnesota currently has quite modest funding for preschool. The state’s current approach to preschool is somewhat unusual. The state funds scholarships for low-income children to go to both private and public preschools at ages 3 and 4.  At current funding levels, these scholarships only go to perhaps 10% of the eligible low-income children, and have a maximum size of $5,000, which limits what proportion of costs are covered. The state also has a “Parent Aware” rating system to help inform parents of the importance of preschool quality, and the quality features of different preschools.  The current Minnesota model is to create an informed market for quality preschool among low-income parents, with some funding to help low-income parents to pay for at least part of the costs of quality preschool.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has proposed a significant expansion of Minnesota’s early childhood education efforts. The main increase in funding would go to help support universal pre-K for 4-year-olds. This funding would go directly to local public schools, although the public schools in some cases might choose to contract out to private preschools to provide preschool services.  The state would also double funding for early learning scholarships for low-income children, but extend the age eligibility for such scholarships to birth to age 5.

The coalition that has backed Minnesota’s early learning scholarships would prefer different uses of any expanded early childhood funding.  These groups, which include some business interests, some private charities, and some private preschools, is advocating for much larger increases in funding for the existing system of early learning scholarships for low-income students. In addition, this coalition would want larger funding increases for earlier age programs for low-income students, such as home visiting programs to improve parenting.

At the forum, some of the perspectives of the “Minnesota model” coalition were expressed by members of the speakers’ panel, including Art Rolnick, former director of research for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, and currently co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota. Some perspectives of the coalition were also expressed in audience members’ questions and comments.

Some of the concerns expressed at the forum about Governor Dayton’s program included the following:

  • There are concerns about prioritizing universal access to preschool over more income-targeted approaches. The argument made by Art Rolnick at the forum is that the highest return to early childhood investments comes from investments in low-income children, not middle-class children. The focus should be on closing the achievement gap between low-income children and other children.
  • There are concerns that putting most of the funding into age 4 preschool doesn’t put a sufficient priority on earlier-age (birth to age 3) early childhood programs. Art Rolnick argued that age 4 preschool was too late for many low-income children, and that based on the brain science, the child’s brain is more malleable at earlier ages, and therefore we would get the greatest effects on closing the achievement gap by investing earlier in low-income children.
  • There are concerns that utilizing public schools to deliver preschool will leave out private preschools. Although public schools can contract out, they may choose not to do so. Leaving out private preschools was argued by Rolnick to decrease parent choice. Some private preschools at the forum were concerned that greater reliance on public schools for age 4 preschool would cause financial problems for private preschools, which were argued to use age 4 preschool revenue to cross-subsidize more expensive care at earlier ages.

I was asked by the forum organizers to focus on why I favor universal over income-targeted preschool.  A previous blog post presented my detailed prepared remarks on this topic.  The essence of my argument was two points:

  • The research evidence suggests that preschool for middle-class kids has similar benefits to preschool for low-income children. Preschool for both income groups has very high benefit-cost ratios. Therefore, any state wanting to maximize its future should invest more in preschool for both low-income and middle-class children.
  • Universal access to preschool has some practical advantages. Most notably, universal pre-K is likely to have sustained broad political support for maintaining an adequate number of preschool slots and adequate preschool quality.

Art Rolnick brought up a counter-argument at the forum. He argued that the empirical evidence I presented only showed that the direct earnings benefits of preschool for middle class children and low-income children was similar. But he argued that it was reasonable to believe that some social benefits, such as lower crime and reduced special education costs, might be greater for preschool for low-income children.

My response to this counter-argument is as follows. There is actually no empirical evidence on whether preschool’s benefits in reducing crime and special education costs are greater for low-income children. It is a reasonably plausible assumption, but it has not been shown to be the case in empirical studies.

In addition, there are other possible social benefits of preschool that might imply greater social benefits from preschool for middle-income children. For example, there is empirical evidence that there are substantial economic spillover benefits for the entire economy from increasing the percentage of workers with college degrees, benefiting all workers, not just those who get a college degree. But the empirical evidence does not support such economic spillovers from more high school degrees. If preschool for the middle class has more of its earnings effects through helping children who would have been high school grads to become college grads, while preschool for low-income children has more of its earnings effects through helping children who otherwise would become high school dropouts to become high school graduates, but not necessarily college graduates, then preschool for the middle-class might have greater “skill spillover” benefits for the entire economy. There is no direct empirical evidence for these greater skill spillover benefits for middle-class preschool, but it seems as reasonable an assumption as the assumption that the anti-crime benefits of preschool are greater for low-income preschool.

On the issue of age 4 preschool vs. programs at earlier ages, I argued in discussion at the forum that although earlier-age programs can achieve higher effects in increasing a child’s future earnings than age 4 preschool, possibly because the child’s brain is more malleable at earlier ages, the benefit-cost ratio is higher for age 4 preschool than for earlier-age programs. I have argued this position before, and similar findings have been reported by Reynolds et al.  Why is this the case? Moving to earlier-age programs, we do get higher effects on earnings, but costs per child go up even faster. Child care programs at ages 1 and 2 must have lower child to staff ratios to be high-quality than is true of age 4 or age 3 preschool. Parenting programs such as the Nurse Family Partnership must use a lot of 1 on 1 staff time with parents to be effective. Preschool at age 4 or age 3 may be a “sweet spot”, where the child’s brain is still malleable enough to have significant effects, while children are old enough to have larger class sizes, which lowers costs per child.

On the private versus public preschool issue, I argued in discussion at the forum that either a public school approach or a private preschool approach can work. For example, both Oklahoma and Georgia run preschool programs with some evidence of success, yet Oklahoma runs preschool primarily through the public school system, with some contracting out, while Georgia uses a charter school approach. Furthermore, in the broader K-12 area, the evidence suggests that market competition via charter schools has not resulted in clear dramatic improvement in average school quality. Some charter schools are better than the average public school, and some are worse.

Therefore, Minnesota (or other states) can use any mix of public versus private approaches to delivering preschool, and still get results. Public preschool might have some advantages in tying preschools more directly to the K-12 system, which will make transitions to K-12 somewhat easier. Preschool in the public schools might also strengthen the public schools as an institution. Public schools might tend to be more universal and less selective, while some private preschools might be more selective in which students they try to serve, although this selection can of course be regulated. On the other hand, private preschools might tend to be more innovative, and might tend to offer more diversity of curriculum.  But public preschools can be encouraged to be more innovative and diverse in curriculum choices with appropriate state policies.

One point I made at the forum, and more extensively in private conversations in Minnesota, is that the choices facing Minnesota are broader than the contrast between Governor Dayton’s original proposal, and the expansions favored by advocates for the scholarship model. For example, there are preschool expansions that would be more “universal” than Minnesota’s current scholarship system, yet not fully universal. We could imagine funding preschool fully for students up to 300% or 400% of the poverty line, and charging fees above that family income level. Or we could imagine funding universal preschool for school districts exceeding some minimum percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, but providing more limited funding for school districts with more affluent student bodies, and allowing those more affluent school districts to decide whether they wanted to provide the local funding needed to make preschool universal, or instead wanted to charge fees.

As another example, we could imagine the state providing some funding for public school provision of preschool, but also significantly expanding funding for private preschools at age 4. The state could directly allocate some share of the funds to private preschools, or require local school districts to allocate some share of funding to private preschools.

A final comment is on Art Rolnick’s argument that the main focus should be on closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and other students. In general, I think it is more appropriate for public policy to be based on multiple goals rather than exclusive focus on one goal. Lowering the achievement gap to help the poor is one worthy goal. Increasing the skills and earnings of all workers, including the middle-class, as part of an effort to improve the overall economy, is another worthy goal. Public policy towards early childhood programs, and other public services, is more likely to be effective and gain greater sustained political support if it tries to balance a variety of worthy goals rather than allowing one worthy goal to trump all other worthy goals.

It is tempting for advocates for the poor to adhere to the doctrine that all that matters for public policy is what public policy does for the poor. But a democratic government that seeks to raise taxes from a broad range of people , and promises to provide useful public services to a broad range of people, must have a broader vision. The interests of the poor should perhaps receive a greater weight in public policy, but that weight should not be 100%. Furthermore, if the interests of the poor are prioritized within a universal system that provides some benefits to all, public support will be greater. I suspect that Social Security, with its broad public support due to its near-universal benefits, but with a formula that favors low-wage workers, has done more to reduce poverty in the U.S. than income-targeted welfare programs, which are highly unpopular.

Putting all the weight on the poor might appeal to some conservatives and some business leaders as a way to hold down taxes, because enhanced spending is only required for a relatively small percentage of the population. But if broad public services such as universal preschool provide economic benefits greater than costs, then this is too narrow a view. Universal preschool that includes the middle-class will expand the U.S. economy more than income-targeted preschool. The initial costs of universal preschool will be higher, but in the long-run, the economic pie will be larger, which will increase business sales and profits, and provide a broader tax base that will allow improved public services combined with lower tax rates. The long-run interests of the business community, and of those favoring low taxes, are better served by the universal preschool approach, because it has larger effects on long-run economic growth.

States face a wide variety of choices in designing their early childhood education efforts. A pragmatic political strategy will forge appropriate compromises in these design choices between different policy goals. There is not one “ideal system” for early childhood policy.

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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