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Early Childhood

PPI | Policy Report | September 8, 2004
Open the Preschool Door, Close the Preparation Gap
By Sara Mead

Editor's Note: The full text of this policy report is available in Adobe PDF format, only. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)


Decades of research have produced reams of compelling evidence that preschool is a sound public investment. Children who attend prekindergarten programs that prepare them to read and build cognitive, verbal, and social skills go on to do measurably better in school and life than their peers who do not. They score higher on academic achievement tests, they get better jobs, and they are less likely to become dependent on welfare or engage in criminal activity. These trends are particularly noticeable among disadvantaged children. When those factors were taken into account, studies of high-quality preschool experiments in Michigan and North Carolina found that investments in preschool delivered a seven-to-one return over time.

So, if preschool is such a good investment, why does America today have only a patchwork early education system that allows many children -- particularly poor and minority children -- to fall through the cracks? More than 60 percent of children under 6 (and a higher proportion of 3 and 4-year-olds) spend at least some time in childcare. But many are in daycare arrangements that amount to little more than babysitting. Other programs purport to be preschool, but in fact have unqualified teachers and minimal academic focus. This is a tremendous missed opportunity, and one that has the worst consequences for poor and minority children. Poor children -- those who most need additional learning opportunities -- are actually the least likely to attend preschool. Among children entering kindergarten in fall 1998, less than one-half from the most disadvantaged families -- 47 percent -- had ever attended preschool, including Head Start or daycare centers. In contrast, 59 percent of non-poor children, and 65 percent of those from the most affluent families, attended preschool. So the problem is two-fold: Too many children who need it do not attend preschool, and even many who do attend preschool are not learning as much as they should.

The result is a significant preparation gap between poor and middle-class children, and between minority and white children. Teachers say one-quarter of kindergarten students lack basic social, motor, academic, and emotional skills. And while two-thirds of all entering kindergarteners can recognize letters of the alphabet, only 39 percent of the most disadvantaged children can. Similar gaps exist between white and black or Hispanic children, and in cognitive areas that are important for childrens school readiness, including math, health, social skills, and attitudes toward learning. The impact of these differences is staggering; children in the highest socioeconomic quintile score 61 percent higher on tests of cognitive skills than those in the lowest quintile. And researchers estimate that these preparation gaps account for one-half of the dramatic academic achievement differences that exist between black and white students later in their schooling -- a gap that, on average, is the equivalent to four grade levels by the time of high-school graduation.

Policymakers cannot afford to squander the opportunity to provide all children -- particularly disadvantaged children -- the chance to attend high-quality preschool programs that prepare them to succeed in school and life. Yet, the problem is not a lack of concern for young children. In 2004, the federal government spent nearly $8 billion on Head Start -- its flagship preschool program for poor children -- and other early childhood education programs, and states spent billions of additional federal dollars on childcare under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Childcare Development Fund (CDF) programs to support welfare reform. Meanwhile, 46 states offer some type of publicly funded preschool program. But these programs simply cannot meet the challenge of preparing all children to succeed in school. For starters, both Head Start and most state programs serve only a small percentage of preschoolers and lack resources or funding to keep up with demand. Further, many early childhood programs focus as much on providing daycare as education. They simply do not include the intense early learning activities disadvantaged children need to close the school preparation gap with their peers. Despite making significant improvements, children in Head Start still leave the program far below the national average in key skill areas.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act marked a sweeping federal effort to ensure that all children reach high standards in their K-12 education. Now it is time for an equally bold national initiative to make sure every child enters school ready to learn. In an age when learning is more closely linked than ever to economic success, a serious commitment to equality of opportunity demands that our society guarantee children in low-income and working families the same access to quality early learning that affluent families enjoy.

Achieving this progressive goal will require a new partnership between the federal government and the states. Washington should make a substantial new investment in early learning, but rather than impose a one-size-fits-all template, federal policymakers should leave it to the states to design their own programs. This should not simply mean giving states a blank-check block grant, as the Bush administration has proposed for Head Start. Instead, federal early childhood investments need to be expanded, but also made more accountable. Our goal should be a performance-based system, where federal funding is contingent on both state compliance with broad quality standards and demonstrated progress toward closing the preschool preparation gap.

By linking greater public investment to greater accountability for results, we can break the left-right deadlock that has stymied progress toward equal access to high-quality early learning for all children. Conservatives frequently bemoan the uneven quality and uncertain outcomes of Head Start and other preschool programs, but they have been reluctant to spend more to improve quality or serve more children. Liberals, for their part, typically support greater investments in children, but show less alacrity when it comes to demanding more academic rigor and accountability from preschool programs. Americans deserve better than a false choice between quality without investment and investment without quality. Ensuring all children enter school prepared requires both funding, as liberals advocate, and reform, as conservatives argue.

Unlike elementary and secondary education, the federal government provides the majority of public funding for early childhood care and education programs. Thus, federal policymakers have a unique opportunity to drive reform. Washington is also a more likely source for funding increases needed to stimulate reform than cash-strapped states. By making smart investments to expand preschool access and ensure high quality and outcome standards, policymakers can prepare more children to succeed in school and improve returns on current preschool investments.

There is no getting around the fact that universal preschool access is expensive, however. PPI estimates that providing high-quality, free preschool for all needy 4-year-olds who want it, while subsidizing the costs of making preschool affordable for working families, would cost state and federal governments approximately $9.2 billion annually. And, while equity and long-term economic benefits suggest the investment will pay off in time, present federal deficits and state budget crises make such a significant new initiative a tough sell.

Nonetheless, there are promising political signs. New research has drawn attention to the importance of early learning, and Americans increasingly recognize the need for children to receive greater developmental and early academic support both in and outside the home. Smart policymaking can help lawmakers expand preschool access and improve quality at more palatable costs than many preschool supporters and opponents estimate. And, despite budget crunches, a number of states are leading the way with promising initiatives to dramatically expand access to preschool. Oklahoma, Georgia, and New York all have universal prekindergarten programs in place that provide high-quality early learning opportunities to every 4-year-old whose family wants them. Evaluations in both Oklahoma and Georgia have found significant positive impact from these programs, especially for the most disadvantaged children. And Floridians passed a referendum in 2002 requiring that every child in the state be offered preschool access by 2005. Nationally, a recently formed group, the Trust for Early Education, has launched a public relations and advocacy initiative aimed at drawing federal, state, local, and private support to make universal prekindergarten a reality for all American 4-year-olds. Yet, despite the growing consensus that all children deserve a chance to attend preschool, that goal is unlikely to be achieved without sustained, catalytic national action.

Download the full text of this report. (PDF)

Sara Mead is a policy analyst with the Progressive Policy Institute's 21st Century Schools Project.