from Renewing America

The Critical Missing Education Piece: Universal Pre-K

Pre-school graduation (Paul Schultz/Flickr).

February 20, 2013

Pre-school graduation (Paul Schultz/Flickr).
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President Obama’s call in last week’s State of the Union address for high-quality pre-kindergarten education for all American children is long overdue.

The rest of the developed world is well ahead of the United States when it comes to universal pre-K. Just 69 percent of American four-year-olds are in any kind of program, compared to nearly all four-year-olds in most of Western Europe, Japan, and Taiwan, where pre-K is usually part of the public school systems. In other words, for some of the United States’ chief economic competitors, school starts a full year earlier.

But the United States has been catching up. The biggest growth has been in state-run programs, where pre-K enrollment doubled during the 2000s. Thirty-nine states now offer programs, most of them means-tested, compared to eight states in 1980. Only sparsely populated Western states have no programs at all. Nine states have “universal” preschool programs, in which pre-K is supposed to be available to all who apply.

High-quality pre-K programs can have an immensely positive and cost-effective impact on young children,  particularly on the most disadvantaged. One year of intensive cognitive enrichment in model programs, such as the famous Perry Preschool project, can catapult an adult into a different life trajectory—where he or she is more likely to graduate high school, stay out of crime, form stable relationships and families, and ultimately earn more money. For programs like Perry Preschool, the cost-benefit analysis would make any policymaker swoon; every public dollar spent gives back seven dollars worth in future benefits.

The problem is that the average pre-K experience in the United States is not high quality. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, only five states provide programs satisfy all of their quality benchmarks. Most children enrolled in state pre-K programs have teachers who are only required to have a high school degree and earn less than K-12 teachers. Head Start, the federal program for young children in poverty, has a spotty record when it comes to average quality and impact on student achievement. Moreover, more than half the country’s impoverished children, whom Head Start and means-tested state-run programs are designed to serve, are not enrolled in any pre-K program.

The challenge then will be to raise overall quality, expand to scale, and at manageable costs—and all while convincing the public the massive new funding to make it happen are worth it in the long term.

Luckily we know it is possible, and in the most unlikely of places: red-state, rural, far-from-wealthy, and tea-party-strong Oklahoma. Its state-run program is universal and has among the highest enrollment rates of any in the country, serving roughly three-quarters of the state’s four-year-olds. The program’s architects wisely folded pre-K into the existing public school system. Funding, which comes from the same general education budget as K-12, is therefore safe from line-item slashing that so often occurs during recessionary budget cuts. The same K-12 teacher standards (e.g., requiring a college degree or certification) and salaries are extended to pre-K teachers. Students’ cognitive gains have been huge; compared to their peers who did not attend the state’s pre-K program, they were nine months ahead in reading and five months ahead in math. While it may be too early to draw definitive conclusions about these children’s long-term success since the program has only existed for fifteen years, the magnitude of the short-term cognitive gains bodes well for sustained behavioral effects. Most remarkably, Oklahoma has pulled this off while spending only $7,500 per pupil per year—more than the average for all state-run programs (i.e., means-tested and universal), but much less than other model programs like the Perry Preschool project.

What role should the federal government take in expanding high-quality pre-K on a national scale? According to a recently released Center for American Progress proposal considered to be Obama’s blueprint, the federal role will primarily be to help fund state programs. The proposal calls for federal matching grants up to $10,000 per child—a more generous amount above and beyond what Oklahoma spends—with some additional grants for especially needy districts. The taxpayer’s bill would be an estimated $10.5 billion a year. It remains to be seen whether Congress will stomach a new social spending program at a time when austerity and debt negotiations are issue number one on the agenda.

States could certainly use the funding help. State per-pupil pre-K spending for all programs has declined by 15 percent in the last ten years. While Oklahoma stands as a shiny example, other states are backtracking on quality largely because of budget cuts. In 2010, Arizona became the first state to cancel its entire pre-K program. California and New York have eliminated regular site visits to monitor quality. Other states are reducing the frequency of site visits.

In this era of austerity, a more realistic short-term goal would be to ensure that existing pre-K monies are well-spent on the neediest children. Here the Obama administration has made some positive impact. The lowest-performing Head Start programs are being forced to “recompete” for funding based on a new set of quality benchmarks. By 2014, half of all Head Start teachers must hold bachelor’s degrees. A new federal competitive-grant program rewards states that expand access to poor children and build robust evaluation systems for better quality control. These are small initial steps that move the country in the direction of the ultimate long-term goal of high-quality pre-K for all.

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