Should preschool be the new kindergarten? Our nation appears to be embroiled in debate about the most significant expansion of public education since the early 20th century, when kindergarten was first widely introduced. Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida currently offer publicly funded universal-preschool programs, and New York state and Illinois have announced plans to do likewise. Today, 38 states fund prekindergarten initiatives, and many of the 2008 presidential candidates have made universal access to preschool a cornerstone of their campaigns.
Numerous studies document the benefits of beginning school at an earlier age. In 2005, a RAND study calculated that every dollar invested in early-childhood education leads to a future return of $2.62, as well as additional benefits to the state, such as reduced crime and greater international competitiveness. A 2007 study by the Economic Policy Institute calculated the return on a targeted program at an even higher $12.10. As the Nobel Prize-winning scientist James J. Heckman wrote last year, “one of the best investments government can make to raise academic achievement and reduce welfare dependency and crime is the provision of quality preschool programs.” ("Beyond Pre-K," March 21, 2007.) The research even suggests that waiting until age 4 may be too late, and that investing at an earlier age will have a more dramatic impact.
While many agree that early access to quality care and education is a good investment, who should deliver these services and how they should be delivered has not been as extensively discussed. A look at the private sector’s experience with preschool and the efforts now under way to reform our K-12 system suggests that policymakers consider the following factors when drafting legislation:
First, parents should be free to choose the pre-K program that best fits their child’s and family’s needs and work schedules. Both children and families have diverse interests and needs—one size does not fit all. Sound public policy will enable families to select any licensed pre-K program that meets their needs. The private sector currently provides more than 80 percent of early-childhood care and education (including services for infants and toddlers), and serves 9.28 million children annually. Allowing families to choose private-sector providers enables lawmakers to leverage significant capital investments made by the private sector and its existing capacity, rather than wasting precious resources on what Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia has called “bricks and mortar.”
Second, we must better understand the key ingredients of a high-quality pre-K program before dictating specific attributes. Today, some early-learning advocates address the quality question by requiring that pre-K providers hire only teachers with bachelor’s degrees and specialized training in early-childhood education, while ignoring the critical issue of program effectiveness. This is a notable absence, given new research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (published in the journal Child Development) that fails to find a significant relationship between a bachelor’s degree and classroom quality or children’s academic gains.
Research from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child finds that high-quality early-learning programs combine “highly skilled staff; small class sizes and high adult-to-child ratios; a language-rich environment; age-appropriate curricula and stimulating materials in a safe physical setting; warm, responsive interactions between staff and children; and high and consistent levels of child participation.” Instead of implementing arbitrary, unproven, and expensive requirements, we must do additional monitoring and assessment to find the critical parameters that actually determine quality in early-learning programs.
Finally, it is important that we ensure access to high-quality programs for low-income families. Research clearly shows that disadvantaged students—those who start kindergarten with skills that are 60 percent lower than their more affluent counterparts’—benefit most from high-quality early schooling. These benefits continue well beyond kindergarten, into students’ adult years, with disadvantaged students who had access to high-quality early-learning programs less likely to repeat a grade or commit a crime; more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college; and, ultimately, more likely to earn a higher income. At a time when the demands of laws such the federal No Child Left Behind Act require that we spend our limited federal funds on efforts that can eliminate the achievement gap between poor and rich students, it’s essential that new state or federally funded early-learning programs first serve those most in need and most likely to benefit.
If preschool is indeed becoming the new kindergarten, we have a historic opportunity to expand our education system in a manner that puts a priority on the children who most need our help. It is essential that we structure any new taxpayer-funded early-learning programs to target those who will benefit the most, while strengthening existing high-quality programs to better preserve parental choice.