The economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote: “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Typically, this phrase is cited to support government intervention over waiting for the eventually self-correcting private sector. As this year’s State of Preschool marks 14 years of tracking state government support for preschool education, I find myself citing Keynes in exasperation with the slow pace of government intervention. At the current rate, it will be another 50 years before states can reach all low-income children at age four, and it will take 150 years to reach 75 percent of all four-year-olds. I haven’t bothered to count the centuries until they might reach all children at age three. Looking at this year’s numbers it’s hard not to conclude that many states’ efforts are just a fig leaf to hide their unwillingness to invest in truly high-quality early education. For too many of them, two steps forward are often followed by one step back. However, a few states are moving far ahead of the rest demonstrating that high-quality pre-K for all does not have to be a 22nd century goal.
The most recent example is New York, where lawmakers took decisive action to ensure that every child has the opportunity to enroll in a high-quality preschool program. New York has opened new classrooms across the state and dramatically expanded access to full-day services in New York City. New York City’s Pre-K for All now serves 68,647 children, or 70% of the city’s four-year-olds, in full-day prekindergarten, an increase of more than 250% in just two years, while improving program quality. In early education, quality is job number one, and the city has shown a remarkable commitment to use data to continuously improve quality.
It’s time for other states to follow New York’s lead. In 2014-2015, state spending on pre-K programs nationally rose by 10 percent, but New York alone accounted for two-thirds of this increase. Meanwhile, states with the largest populations of young children were falling behind. California, Florida, and Texas are home to nearly 40 percent of all children served by pre-K, but the report finds these three states were also among the lowest in terms of quality standards. Texas and Florida also reduced enrollment and spending, though California showed signs of improvement.
There are pockets of hope throughout the country beyond New York. Six states—Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and West Virginia—and one program in Louisiana met all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks for minimum quality standards, up from four states in the previous school year. The push for quality pre-K has been led by a truly bipartisan group of governors, from Alabama to New Mexico, with Republican governors also leading 6 of the 10 top states for enrollment.
Our nation pays a high price for our failure to invest in young children. Most of the achievement gap is set before our children walk through the kindergarten door. A recent report from NIEER and the Center for American Progress estimates that high-quality full-day pre-K for all would significantly reduce the achievement gaps at kindergarten entry. For African American and Latino kindergarteners, access to high-quality pre-K could close the achievement gap in reading entirely and lessen the gap in math by large percentages. Union City, New Jersey has implemented high-quality pre-K for all for over a decade and illustrates the long-term potential: though 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, the district scores one-third of a grade level above the national average in reading and math (looking at scores from grades 3 to 8).
Cities and states across the country should take note. In a global economy, the race is not to be won by the slow and unsteady, but by those who move ahead at a New York pace and stay at it year after year.
W. Steven Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.