Does Universal Preschool Pay?

Support for the idea is growing, but the tab will be high

Two years ago, Vice-President Al Gore declared that if elected President he would spend $50 billion a year to offer pre-kindergarten to the country's 8.3 million three- and four-year-olds. With the U.S. at war and George W. Bush in the White House, odds are that Uncle Sam won't be paying to send toddlers to school just yet.

But just in the past month, early childhood education has suddenly moved to the political front burner again. In early April, Bush announced that his Administration would begin integrating early literacy skills into the curriculum of Head Start, the federal program that serves poor children. He also earmarked $45 million for research into the most effective techniques for teaching young children. Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), meanwhile, want to parcel out $1 billion per year over five years to bolster state education programs aimed at kids from infancy to age five. Their goal: to accelerate a move already under way in the states, which have more than doubled their pre-kindergarten spending in the past decade, to $1.7 billion, according to the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington (D.C.) group. State pre-K programs now serve three-quarters of a million children.

The idea of exposing very young children to letters and numbers has been gaining momentum because of the ongoing school-reform movement. As experts search for ways to improve kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12), they have become increasingly convinced that many kids don't start school prepared to learn. This view has been bolstered by research showing that children absorb many basic cognitive skills between the ages of three and five. Transforming day care into preschool takes advantage of these crucial years, especially for poor children, who are most likely to fall behind in school. "You simply can't talk about closing the achievement gap without talking about pre-K," says Andrew Rotherham of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank.

Proponents point out that most other developed countries guarantee an education to their three- to five-year-olds. France, Belgium, and Italy provide free preschool to everyone in this age group, including immigrants, who often lag other children. "A lot of children [in the U.S.] are starting school behind their peers, and in many cases they never catch up," says Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Most of the hard evidence demonstrates that poor kids see the most enduring gains from preschool. Middle-class kids who attend pre-K show higher cognitive skills, including math and language abilities, as well as better social skills, says a 1999 study by a team of 10 researchers from the University of North Carolina and three other universities. But by age eight, which is as far as the study goes, most middle-class kids with no preschool have narrowed the gap. As a result, it isn't clear just how valuable widespread preschool would be for every American toddler. "The data on how much kids benefit is not very encouraging," says David F. Salisbury, an education expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, which opposes publicly funded pre-K.

Nonetheless, pre-K is gaining popularity in part because so many households these days face work-family conflicts. With more mothers working, 64% of three- to five-year-olds now go to some kind of day-care center, i.e., outside the home and not with a neighbor or family member. Most centers are private, and their quality varies widely. A recent study in four states found that 70% provide mediocre care, while one in eight is so inadequate as to actually endanger children's health or safety.

Still, the hodgepodge of nursery schools and child care that working families now use provides a platform on which a more comprehensive preschool system could be built. Rather than expanding K-12 schools to include pre-K, existing day-care centers could be upgraded, says Walter S. Gilliam, an education expert at the Yale University Child Study Center. Most of the state initiatives have involved improving existing programs rather than attempting to start new public preschools. Only one state, Georgia, now offers universal pre-K--but only to four-year-olds.

Another key building block for early childhood learning: lifting teacher skills. Currently, fewer than half of the states have minimum requirements for instructors in child-care centers. Low salaries are a big hurdle, too: Day-care employees earn about $16,000 a year, often less than a parking lot attendant. The result: a 30%-plus annual turnover rate, vs. 13% or so for K-12 teachers, who are paid more than twice as much. A universal preschool system would make more money available for instructor pay.

The point on which there's strong consensus is that disadvantaged kids profit from early learning. As it is, Head Start serves more than 900,000 poor three- and four-year-olds. But the part-day program that focuses on health care and nutrition along with education is chronically underfunded. The $6.5 billion-a-year budget means it can't accommodate three of five eligible children. But those who do get in come out ahead. Only 30% of four-year-olds whose mothers are on welfare could count to 20 out loud or write their name correctly, according to an Apr. 16 study of kids in California, Connecticut, and Florida. By comparison, 53% of Head Start children--a comparable demographic group--could count to 20, and 66% could write their first names.

Programs that offer more education than Head Start reap even better results. The most thorough study, called the Carolina Abecedarian Project (after the ABCs), followed 111 disadvantaged North Carolina kids for 21 years. Half were enrolled in a high-quality educational program from infancy to age five, while the control group got only nutritional supplements. All the children attended comparable public schools from kindergarten on. The result: Those who attended preschool were less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, or bear children out of wedlock. By age 15, less than a third had failed a grade, vs. more than half of the control group. At age 21, the preschoolers were more than twice as likely to be attending a four-year college.

The big question about preschool, of course, is where to find the money. A universal program could be done for less than Gore's $50 billion proposal. But it still would run up to $42 billion a year, according to a new study by the Committee for Economic Development, a New York City-based group of blue-chip corporations. The price tag could be lower if some of the cost were borne by middle-class families, many of whom already are paying for day care.

Still to be debated is whether preschool is the best use of public funds for kids who aren't from poor families. No one has done a cost-benefit analysis to see if middle-class kids would be helped more by, say, extra money for K-12 schools instead. In the meantime, though, it's clear that as long as learning officially starts only in kindergarten, millions of children will fall behind before they even reach the schoolhouse door.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

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