Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty of New York City in part on a politically popular promise to expand access to pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds. In doing so, the 21st-century liberal embraced a 20th-century ideal: Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson created Head Start, a national program to provide education to young children, wagering that it would boost their chances of later academic and economic success. For two years running, President Barack Obama has put proposals in his budget for “universal” pre-kindergarten for moderate-income as well as low-income children. The prospect of more kids heading to pre-K has re-opened debates over whether early exposure to school really makes a long-term difference.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo struck a deal to give New York City $300 million to expand pre-K starting in September, although without the tax increase on wealthy residents de Blasio sought to pay for it. But across the U.S., preschool has taken a big hit from strapped budgets since the 2008 financial crisis. In 2012, state spending on preschool dropped 10 percent, the biggest decline ever. As a result of the across-the-board spending reductions, Head Start lost $400 million last year, the deepest cuts since the program’s creation. About 57,000 poor children were turned away during the current school year. Obama’s call in 2013 to raise cigarette taxes to pump about $75 billion into preschool over 10 years went nowhere in the face of Republican opposition. This year, Obama added a new argument, focusing on early education’s potential to offset America’s growing income gap. As a separate debate rages over proposals to revamp U.S. schools, some educators point to a connection between preschool attendance and the scores on international tests that have raised fears about America’s future competitiveness.
In Europe, state preschool systems date back to the 19th century, notably the French “ecoles maternelles.” The U.S. lags behind other developed nations: In 2011, 78 percent of American 4-year-olds attended school, placing it 25th in the world, behind Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea and more than a dozen European nations. Federal involvement in early education began in January 1964 when Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America.” That included the creation of Head Start to provide publicly funded preschool classes for low-income children. The idea: the more prepared for regular school before it began, the better the odds of academic — and economic — success later in life. An experiment in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the 1960s has been cited as the strongest evidence for effectiveness. Researchers began a long-term study collecting data on 123 low-income black children considered at risk academically. About half were enrolled in high-quality preschool; the others weren’t. The researchers, who have now followed the students for more than 40 years, concluded that those enrolled in preschool were more likely to graduate from high school and earn more, and less less likely to commit crimes. While critics have questioned whether nationwide policies can be based on the equivalent of a handful of classes, the study’s duration has made it a centerpiece of the debate.
Proponents argue that expanding preschool education could achieve similar results on a national scale. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, estimates that each dollar invested in the Michigan program produced returns of 7 to 10 percent, when factors like the effect on crime and welfare dependency are considered. Others are less optimistic. A federal study of almost 5,000 children in Head Start from 2002 to 2008 concluded that positive effects of the program fade by the third grade. That has led to charges that preschool is being oversold. Proponents say that other research shows that some programs are more effective than others, and that Congress and the Obama administration have taken steps to raise standards. Obama, Cuomo and de Blasio all emphasize the need for quality — though in pushing to improve teacher qualifications while rapidly expanding classrooms the city has set itself a formidable challenge. A new study suggests that children do better in full-day than half-day programs, but those findings also raise questions about what level of resources society is willing to commit for what kinds of gains.
The Reference Shelf
- The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2012 report on U.S. education showing middling rankings for preschool participation.
- James Heckman’s New York Times article that makes the economic argument for universal preschool.
- Brookings Institution July 2013 blog item stating that Obama’s preschool proposal isn’t based on sound research.
- Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research counter-argument stating that there’s sound science behind pre-K benefit claims.
First published April 3, 2014
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