President Obama’s call to action on early education is a watershed moment that has the potential to improve education for millions of American students. Ensuring all students have the opportunity to attend high-quality preschool, regardless of income and geography, is a key component of an effective education system that prepares students for success in school and society.
State-funded pre-K has grown substantially over the last decade to serve 28 percent of 4-year-olds, up from 14 percent in 2001. Yet, this is only part of the picture. As many as 40 percent are served by public programs when Head Start and preschool special education are counted, though the latter may consist of only a few hours of therapy a week. Over 80 percent are in some type of out of home arrangement including private programs and family home child care. Unfortunately, research now makes it clear that the quality of many of these arrangements as assessed by direct observation is far too low to promote educational opportunity. Some are so poor they may actually increase children’s risk of school failure. Head Start’s weaknesses have been noted by many as debate over this proposal has unfolded, but Head Start is far better than many of the private centers and day care homes children attend. NIEER has just released an in-depth look at what the research tells us about the outcomes of early education which can help clarify some confusion seen in media report.
That is why it is so important to understand that the President’s pre-K proposal will raise quality and educational effectiveness, not just increase the number of seats available. And, it will do this by lifting up the entire field. The models of successful pre-K for all already operate show the way. Oklahoma, New Jersey’s Abbott program, and West Virginia all integrate private providers and Head Start into state-funded pre-K. What does this mean? Head Start teachers nationally are paid barely more than pet sitters and dog walkers. This is Head Start’s Achilles heel. Teachers in private child care make even less. To use the New Jersey example, when integrated into state pre-K these teachers were given the opportunity to go back to school and get stronger preparation, they were assigned teacher coaches who worked with them as partners to improve their teaching, and their salaries were doubled. Of course, this came with accountability for results, but the vast majority delivered. Teaching quality in all classrooms, private and public, was raised from poor/mediocre to good/excellent.
Planning for this reform process has already begun in most states through their state early learning advisory councils. In addition, 35 states and the District of Columbia developed reform plans when they applied for funds to expand early education through the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge in 2011. However, only nine states were awarded funds. These applications demonstrate a clear interest and capacity by state governments to partner with the federal government to start all children on the right path. States have never been better poised to prioritize early education and the federal government’s role is welcome support.
The White House preschool proposal has a few key words that are important in understanding how this would play out: “federal-state partnership” and “cost-sharing.” This isn’t the federal government signing a blank check to foot the entire bill for early education; it is limited support based on the number of low-income children in a state and tied to a small number of standards already adopted by many states. If other states do not want to raise quality, they do not have to participate. If they do participate, they will be in charge, not the federal government, which could list its requirements on a single page. The list of states that we believe might qualify with little or no change to state policy includes not just Oklahoma and Georgia, but also Alabama, Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia. Mississippi is currently advancing legislation that would meet the test as well.
Once it is understood, the President’s pre-K plan should be endorsed by practically everyone. It supports equity and excellence in the pre-K policies advanced by governors of both parties. Both critics and supporters of Head Start should welcome it as Head Start reform that will strengthen that program and improve its effectiveness. Those who want to see more choice and competition should applaud federal support for state programs that incorporate private providers. To return to our New Jersey example, two-thirds of the children are served by private providers supported by local school districts responsible for ensuring quality through teacher coaching and supports to help children with special needs succeed in regular classes.
Given all of its advantages, the primary objection in Congress to the President’s proposal is likely to be that we can’t afford new spending when deficits loom so large. Yet, this is fundamentally a pro-growth, deficit reduction proposal. The biggest returns to this investment will kick in years down the road when the deficit is projected to become a more serious problem. And, it addresses root causes of the deficit–slow growth and rising costs of government including health care costs. Quality pre-K will enhance productivity to increase growth, decrease the costs of school failure and crime, and reduce smoking and other risky behaviors that harm health. Sure, it’s just one small contribution to deficit reduction, but a $50 billion investment over 10 years could contribute a few hundred million dollars to deficit reduction.
Rejecting the President’s pre-K plan is the far more costly alternative. We cannot afford to leave so many children behind with more than a third not ready to succeed at kindergarten entry. We cannot afford the lost growth and increased costs to government when they subsequently fail. We cannot afford failing to recognize that this is not just a problem for the 45 percent of our children who live below 200 percent of poverty, but for the vast majority of families. Deficit hawks, education reformers, and civil rights activists should unite to lead the charge for this proposal in Congress. States–red and blue–have already shown the way forward. Congress should follow.
– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER