Children and Poverty: the Role of Preschool

April 3, 2014

This guest post was written by NIEER Senior Research Fellow Cynthia Lamy. Dr. Lamy is a developmental and educational psychologist whose research and writing focuses primarily on children at risk of school failure, due to the many influences of poverty. She is currently working for the Robin Hood Foundation.

High quality preschool generates measurable, long-term impacts on children.  Many of us have known this for a long time, and have heard it or have said it ourselves many times. This is vital, valuable information for policymakers and for families. And for early childhood professionals, on days when boisterous 3-year olds are testing their teacher’s patience, and stressed parents are showing up late for pick-up, and policy advocates are explaining the graph to Congress one more time, it means that our career choice to focus on young children and their families, and our daily struggle to produce our best work, is truly worth every effort. kids in line

But in recent opportunities to speak about children and poverty to groups of people who could be loosely defined as potential child advocates–not researchers or policymakers, but knowledgeable or interested professional laypeople–when I asked how many people in the audience knew of preschool’s long-term effects or had heard of the longitudinal studies of preschool effects on children’s later adult outcomes, I was shocked to find the number of raised hands in the single digits.

Perry, Abecedarian, Chicago–they had never heard of any of them. An audience of educated, interested people was once again astonished to learn about the long-term impacts, as I told them about the longitudinal studies, including New Jersey’s Abbott district findings.

Once again I found myself describing, in lay terms, the wonder of it all. It may seem astonishing, I say, but high quality preschool is a powerful weapon against poverty. Rigorous research has found that children lucky enough to attend a wonderful preschool program–with warm and knowledgeable teachers who are specially certified to teach young children as they play or are busy with activities, incorporating new vocabulary into dramatic play, heading off behavior problems with a timely tete-a-tete about sharing, scaffolding math skills during snack time–these children go on to be retained in grade or placed in Special Education at nearly half the rate of their less fortunate peers; to graduate high school at much higher rates; to engage in less crime; and to earn more money as adults, becoming contributors to society and depending less on the national safety net.

Having made the conceptual journey from early childhood education to adult outcomes, the remarkable idea that high quality preschool is actually poverty-fighting is a short leap.

The benefits of high quality preschool exceed the costs of the programs, which is great for the children, their families, taxpayers, and for everyone, but this means much more than benefits to individuals, or even to school districts, or criminal justice systems.  This positive social return on investment also signals to us the possibility of an effective and efficient fight against poverty on a societal scale.

How different would American poverty be if every child had equal access to high quality educational experiences from as early as possible in their development, before the impact of poverty diminishes their potential? What if every child received warm, playful, informed, individualized early education no matter who their parents are or where they live? Excellent preschool, carefully implemented to maintain high quality, on a scale wide enough to provide access to everyone in need, is an essential policy lever to protect the developmental potential of vulnerable children. That broad protection will lessen the chronic, inter-generational nature of American poverty. It sounds like a grand statement, but it’s just the natural consequence of strong early support for human development.

There are a few mechanisms by which preschool can powerfully contribute to the fight against poverty, as reported by Barnett and others, Heckman and others, and here. One mechanism is the effect, direct or indirectly through the family, on children’s educational success.  It is obvious that children must succeed in school to grow up and out of poverty. The direct path of the effect of preschool is through a positive impact on some combination of children’s cognition, skills, and expectations for themselves. The indirect path is through improved parenting and increased parental awareness, engagement in, and support of their children’s educational experiences and school success, due to the preschool. These are the goals of every good early childhood program.

Another mechanism is an impact on increased parental earnings. With their children happy and safe in good early childhood programs, parents work more hours.

Then there is the potential for improving the quality of public educational systems, especially in high-poverty school districts, as best practices in preschool ‘trickle up’ to elementary schools.  This is not easy to accomplish, but pre-K-3rd grade models are an example of this effort, as are transition programs that bring preschool and early elementary staff members together to share their best practices. Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), with their cross-auspice implementation and focus on information sharing, program standards, and quality supports, may also help spread the best of early childhood widely, including to early elementary schools, alerting parents to the importance of high quality programs all along the continuum of their children’s development.

Taking the concept out one more contextual level: when schools improve, neighborhoods can begin to turn around in a virtuous cycle, further attracting education-oriented families. Without school improvement, there is little chance of that.

But there is another way that excellent early childhood programs can contribute to the fight against poverty, adding a timely and direct push against poverty just when many families are motivated to make a change–when their kids are very young. It is a tradition within the early childhood field that goes back all the way to the original objective of Head Start, to support the whole child and to respect the family. It arises from the capacity of early childhood professionals to perceive and understand the influence of problems in the family system on children’s development, and to be sensitive and supportive family partners. Early childhood programs are perfectly positioned to more effectively link families to the supportive opportunities they need, tailored specifically for them and their set of challenges.

Poverty is a complicated tangle of problems. Not all, but many, families in poverty need serious help. Parents need jobs that pay a living wage, or the adult education and training to move toward better employment. Families need stable, affordable, healthy homes. Often, families fighting poverty need a good pro bono lawyer. Everyone needs timely, affordable access to doctors and dentists. Families may be eligible for programs such as SNAP or WIC, but may be unaware. Family members with addictions or mental health issues; people living in fear of violence; older youth who need a safe, supportive haven after school; family members struggling with incarceration or reintegration into society–all need access to the assistance that would help them solve their problems, and help their young children grow to be healthier, happier, and more successful in school. Early childhood programs are in a unique position to tune in to families’ needs and to partner with families as they strive to do better for their children on a daily basis.

This is not a call to expand services. Asking early childhood program staff to extend their job description to the direct support of families at risk is asking too much, stretching resources thin, and creating distraction from the main educational mission. We have learned this lesson. Moreover, the support of families in need often requires specific knowledge and deep, often clinical, expertise, not typically housed in early childhood programs. Early childhood professionals should do for children and families what they do best. This is not a call for early childhood programs to take on even more responsibility, in addition to all that they already do.

But, this is a call for early childhood professionals to more explicitly recognize, understand, and value their natural position in the fight against poverty. It is a call to develop stronger working relationships between early childhood programs and other helping organizations. It is a call for early childhood professionals to be even smarter about the risks the families of their young students face, knowing where to send them for the support they need. And when there is little or no local capacity for the needed services, this is a call for early childhood professionals to be a voice for the expansion of those services–high quality services only, of course. If there is one thing we appreciate in the field of early childhood, it is the value of best practices.

It turns out that other programs, when they are of high quality, also produce measurable and cost-effective improvements for families, doing their part to push back against poverty. And across many poverty-related fields there is a growing recognition of the value of strong collaboration to create a true safety net–or, really, an opportunity net–for vulnerable families.  Early childhood programs, in fact all schools, should be part of that, taking a stronger stance in support of the families they serve.   No one program can solve all the complex problems of poverty. But, on a policy level, early childhood programs could take up what is actually a very natural, and potentially a particularly cost-effective, role, becoming powerful and persuasive proponents of young families in need, catalyzing and encouraging the development of best practice supports for families in their communities, and solving many more problems that are detrimental to children’s development, while children are still young.

We know that high quality preschool is a critical component in a set of policies and programs that have measurable impacts and that protect the development of children from the destructive effects of poverty. Preschool could be even more than that. It could fight poverty in real time.

 

References

Barnett, W. S., Young, J., & Schweinhart, L. (1998).  How preschool education influences long-term cognitive development and school success.  In W. S. Barnett & S. S. Boocock (Eds.), Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Barnett, W.S., Jung, K., Youn, M. & Frede, E.C. (2013).  The Abbott preschool program longitudinal effects study: 5th grade follow-up.  New Brunswick, NJ: NIEER.

Bayer, P., Ferreira, F. & McMillan, R. (2007).  A unified framework for measuring preferences for schools and neighborhoods.  The Journal of Political Economy, 115(4), 588-638.,

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2008).Meta-Analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3). Retrieved March 31, 2014, from  http://spot.colorado.edu/~camillig/Papers/38_15440.pdf

Cellini, S., Ferreira, F. & Rothstein, J. (2008).  The value of school facilities: Evidence from the dynamic regression-discontinuity design.  Working paper # 14516.  Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Forry, N. & Hofferth, S. (2011).  Maintaining work: The influence of child care subsidies on child care-related work disruptions.  Journal of Family Issues, 32(3), 346-368.

Heckman, J., Malofeeva, E., Pinto, R. & Savelyev, P. (2010).  Understanding the mechanisms through which an influential early childhood program boosted adult outcomes.  Presentation at the Measuring Education Outcomes: Moving from Enrollment to Learning Conference at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, June 2, 2010, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Lamy, C. E. (2012).  Poverty is a Knot and Preschool is an Untangler. In R. C. Pianta, W. S. Barnett, L. M Justice and S. M. Sheridan (Eds.) Handbook of Early Childhood Education.  NY: Guilford Press.

Matthews, M. (2006).  Child care assistance helps families work: A review of the effect of subsidy receipt on employment.  Washington, DC: CLASP.


The Empire State Leads the Way

March 18, 2014

Two of New York’s most distinguished leaders who shared a family name (Roosevelt) were strong advocates for the 99 percent, long before that term was common with their campaigns for the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.” Today’s leaders are poised to echo their efforts with what might be called the “Real Deal.” A key element of the real deal is to give every child access to a world class 21st Century education, beginning with high quality pre-K for all.  New York State has been promising universal preschool to its children for 20 years. With leadership from the NYC Mayor, the Governor, and Legislators in the Senate and Assembly they are finally moving to fulfill that promise–a victory for New York’s young learners and the middle class. Last week, the State Senate proposed supporting free full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs in New York City with $540 million per year in state funds over 5 years.  The Assembly has already endorsed Mayor de Blasio’s plan for expansion with a pre-K and after-school tax on NYC’s wealthiest.

The next step is for leaders to come together behind a single plan to move forward, with a firm commitment to financing and a timeline for delivering on this promise. Recent statements indicate that New York’s leaders are prepared to put partisanship and personal ambition aside to do right by the state’s children.  The Assembly and Mayor have indicated they can accept the Senate plan. The Governor has repeatedly said he supports fully funding pre-K and should join them and make this plan a reality. If he does so, he will have propelled the preschool-for-all movement to a major turning point, not just in New York, but in the nation.  New York is the third most populous state.  If it were an independent country it would have the world’s 16th largest economy. With high-quality public education beginning at age four for all, New York will become a model for other states and even countries beyond our borders.

As we reported in our 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook, New York State has some way to go to achieve this goal of national and international leadership in early education.  It currently serves about 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, ranking ninth in the nation for enrollment, but funding per child has not kept pace with program expansion, jeopardizing quality.
NY state enrollment
NY state spending

Providing adequate funding and a timeline for implementation is a major step toward the real deal in pre-K, but political leaders must also support the hard work needed to successfully implement this plan and deliver the promise.  This will require a relentless focus on quality, and a shift from campaigning to governing that will provide pre-K programs with the support and accountability required to achieve and maintain excellence in every pre-K classroom.  At this stage it is important to ensure that state and local agencies have the resources to guide this continuous improvement process, as in other states where pre-K has produced the promised results (Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey, to name a few).

When well implemented, pre-K is a valuable and important long-term investment.  At NIEER we estimate that by offering all children quality pre-K, New York will actually realize a net reduction of more than $1 billion in its education budget by 2030. This figure includes cost-savings as a result of reducing special education placement and grade retention.  It does not include other long-term benefits from improving the education of New York’s children–increased productivity and economic growth and better health outcomes, among them.

New York isn’t alone in the pre-K push. Even states that have not historically supported pre-K are getting in on the investment, including: a small program in Hawaii; a pilot program in Indiana; and a new program legislated in Mississippi.  Yet, New York’s UPK initiative, if done well, could become the nation’s leading example of good early education policy because of its proposed quality and scale.  It’s time for every New Yorker to get behind this initiative and work with the Governor, Mayor, and legislative leaders of both parties, to carry through on New York’s 20-year-old promise.

– Steve Barnett, Director

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


The Profound Impact of Early Education

February 10, 2014

Every family in the United States should be able enroll their child in good preschool program, beginning at age three and ought to have access to good child care–including that provided by themselves at home–for infants and toddlers.  The benefits would be profound for our children and the larger society, especially children from low-income families–half of all young children–but not only for them. Today we are far from achieving this vision of a more nurturing society and our progress has been painfully slow over the last two decades.  All levels of government will have to increase their support for young children and families, including the federal government which can best lead the way by priming the pump–providing financial support and incentives that encourage and enable state and local governments to develop sustainable quality programs.  For example, federal matching funds that start off big and gradually decline are well-designed to address the major challenge to state and local funding of pre-K: states must pay for pre-K now, but the off-setting cost-savings grow year by year as children progress through the grades.

Only about half of 3-and-4-year-olds attend a preschool program. From a national observational study where the quality of care for 4-year-olds was directly observed, we know that few children attend good preschool programs. Public programs improve quality somewhat for children in poverty, so children in middle-income families actually attend worse programs on average. However, many young children are in family day care homes that provide even worse care, so much so that the family day care homes attended by most African-American and Hispanic children are of low quality. Our under-funded child care subsidy systems are perversely designed to encourage this and may actually increase the number of children in settings that harm their development.  As Cindy Lamy and I point out in our chapter in the recently published book Closing the Opportunity Gap, edited by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner, much of the educational failure and inequality that plagues our country is rooted in children’s experiences before they enter kindergarten.

In recent debates some have claimed that the federal government already spends a great deal on the care and education of young children and that most of this is wasted on ineffective programs. These claims are based on faulty math and misrepresentation of the evidence. Take for example, Grover Whitehurst’s estimate that the federal government spends $5,000 on every young child in poverty. He begins with $20 billion in annual spending on children–fair enough, Ron Haskins and I calculated that number together. But there are 5 million children in poverty, which yields $4,000 per child in poverty. And, of course, all of this is not spent just on children in poverty, so it would be much more reasonable to divide by the number of children under 5 in low income families = about 10 million children, and a  figure of $2,000 per child.

How does federal spending on disadvantaged young children’s care and education compare with federal largesse more generally?  Let’s consider two examples. The tax break for capital gains and dividends which allows wealthy hedge fund managers to pay a 15% income tax rate costs taxpayers $83 billion annually. In 2012, the federal government spent more than $20 billion on farm subsidies received by a small, relatively wealthy population. The 2014 farm bill increases so-called “crop insurance” subsidies that are actually open-ended revenue insurance for farmers.  If Congress set evidence-based priorities for all programs based on returns to the taxpayers, young children would see more money, not less.

What about the claims that federal money spent on young children is wasted?  I would have to agree that lost opportunities abound, but not as the critic’s suppose. Let’s get this clear: the Head Start national impact study’s oft cited intent-to-treat estimates grossly underestimate the program’s actual impacts, and even modest Head Start benefits likely generate benefits that exceed costs. Critics also seem to be in some kind of time warp that missed the last decade of Head Start reform and the evidence that these reforms increased effects on language and literacy development (if only Congress would call an expert in early language and literacy development to testify, surely this would be noted).

The biggest problems with federal programs for young children are that they ask too much of too little money. Nevertheless, both child care and Head Start spending could be better focused on learning and teaching. No amount of wishful thinking will permit this to be accomplished by reducing their budgets or just giving the money to states. The first step to improve Head Start should be doubling notoriously low salaries for highly effective teachers. The second step should be to dramatically reduce bureaucratic compliance requirements for any Head Start that agrees to be judged instead by teaching quality and children’s learning gains. The President’s pre-K proposal is in its own way a Head Start reform proposal that puts states in charge of the education of 4-year-olds; those two steps I set out above would go far toward enabling Head Start to integrate with and enhance state pre-K. States like West Virginia and New Jersey have already successfully integrated their programs with Head Start and child care at high standards. Federal policy that followed such leads could support states to significantly improve opportunity for America’s youngest citizens.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “The ‘Noble Intention’ of Giving Early Education” from Fawn Johnson.


New York in a Preschool State of Mind

January 21, 2014

This afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, including significant investment in state-funded pre-K. The Governor called for an investment of $1.5 billion over five years, starting with $100 million in its first year up to $500 million in its fifth year. This funding is meant in addition to the $410 million the state already spends on its “Universal” Prekindergarten Program, with the goal of helping the program move towards the “universal” part of its name.

Pre-K has become a hot topic in the Empire State.  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as we have written before, has made universal pre-K in the Big Apple a key focus of his campaign as well as his first month in office. De Blasio has noted that while many New York City children are served in publicly funded preschool programs, demand far outstrips availability, and he has proposed an increased income tax on those earning over $500,000 to raise the estimated $340 million needed to pay for pre-K for all. An increase in New York City income tax would need to be approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo has stated his support of pre-K but also his opposition to increasing taxes, remaining true to his word today by proposing a plan to build pre-K into the state budget without creating a new tax.

It is easy to see these proposals as an either/or proposition, but the best route for New York’s educational and economic prosperity is both. We applaud Governor Cuomo’s focus on high-quality, full-day universal pre-K and a renewed commitment to providing funding for the program. Implicitly, this recognizes that, to date, the program has undercut quality, provided mostly half-days, and fallen far short of universal in reach. NIEER’s estimate of the cost of a high-quality, full-day program in New York state is just under $10,000 per child. In its first year, the $100 million expansion of the UPK program could fully fund 10,195, or 4 percent, of the state’s 4-year-olds. This would barely chip away at the gap of 50,000 children de Blasio has reported as having no or inadequate access to pre-K.  However, that assumes that nothing is done to raise quality or extend to a full-day existing slots, which could more than consume the entire $100 million without serving any new children.

Giving New York City the autonomy to raise its own taxes in order to invest in educating its children would ensure real progress toward raising quality and providing a full day, while increasing access.  It also would protect the spirit of local control that exists in American education and is one of the key strengths of the American approach to public education. Other cities and towns in the state may choose to move ahead more quickly, as well.

Governor Cuomo’s proposal was only announced today, and key details remain to be specified. In the ensuing conversations about how to proceed, New York could learn important lessons from the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey, which has built one of the highest quality preschool programs in the nation (for a discussion of the lessons learned from this program, see Steve Barnett’s video lecture as well as recent coverage in Slate and The American Prospect). For pre-K to truly succeed as a system, the state needs to set feasible timelines and research-based quality standards. Programs also need support in meeting those standards, as seen in New Jersey’s support of early childhood educator training programs to create a qualified, highly effective workforce. Pre-K cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be coordinated with child care and Head Start programs in the state. This is already underway in New York’s mixed delivery model. Finally, New York state must commit to what it would actually cost to fully meet their goal of full-day highly effective early education for all with a hard deadline for achieving that goal. NIEER provides estimates of the per-child cost of a high-quality program in its Yearbook. A joint report from the Center for Children’s Initiatives and The Campaign for Educational Equity focuses on the questions of funding and timing specifically in a New York context. Basing program funds on what can be found in the budget, rather than studying actual costs of providing a quality universal program, is a recipe for underfunding.

It is heartening to see two such high-profile elected leaders competing over who has the “best“ pre-K plan. Particularly as UPK in New York has been underfunded for well over a decade, it is our sincere hope that Cuomo and de Blasio can work together on both state- and city-level initiatives to create a quality, stable program and ensure that all of New York’s children are off to the bright start they deserve. From our perspective, the best option is likely to be implementing both plans–and together they can transform New York into a model for Governors and Mayors throughout the nation who seek to provide the best 21st Century education and brightest future for all young children.

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER & CEELO

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER  & CEELO


Early Education in the Voting Booth

November 4, 2013

Education policy is often a campaign issue for politicians and very heavily debated in both major political parties. Lately, preschool has made its way to the forefront of political debate for both sides since the President proposed his “Preschool for All” plan, proposing incentives for states to offer high quality universal preschool to all children during his 2013 State of the Union address. On both sides of the political aisle many agree early education is fundamentally important for a child’s development and economic productivity, but there is more disagreement about the role of government and eligibility for government assistance with pre-K. Keeping up with where different candidates stand on these issues is important for the voter interested in education policy issues.  child raising hand in class

In New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, Democratic Senator Barbara Buono recently proposed an education initiative that would include expanding preschool and full day kindergarten. While Buono has not released a budget breakdown for this somewhat vague proposal, the campaign for Republican Governor Chris Christie has said this initiative would add an extra $3 billion to New Jersey’s education budget, currently standing at about $33 billion. New Jersey’s education budget is already one of the largest in the country, spending over $19,000 per child on education (in the 2011-2012 school year). Christie has expressed his concern with funding such an extensive early childhood program and has largely criticized Buono’s education plan and dismissed it due to its high cost. Senator Buono is prepared to increase New Jersey income tax and plans to use the millionaire’s tax to fund this large-scale program. According to NIEER’s calculations, roughly $300 to $600 million would be required if all 4-year-olds not already in a public program were offered pre-K for a half or full day, respectively. Given the discrepancy, it is unclear where the Christie campaign is acquiring its numbers, and additionally not all funding would necessarily come from the state. It is worth noting that in 2008, the New Jersey legislature passed the School Funding Reform Act which would incorporate Abbott preschool program funding into the formula and eventually expand the program to all 3- and 4-year-olds in 82 high poverty districts, eventually reaching an additional 30,000 children statewide. However, the expansion has stalled in the wake of budget difficulties. We would like to see a debate over the benefits and costs of pre-K expansion in New Jersey with hard, reliable numbers, and see this continue beyond the campaign regardless of who is in the governor’s offices, focusing particularly on the SFRA expansion which is already on the books. To date, New Jersey has done quite well with its investment in pre-K and there are several programs with a wide range of costs, all of them relative bargains.

Virginia’s gubernatorial race has raised attention around preschool as well. Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli has criticized his Democrat opponent Terry McAuliffe’s education plans, which include expanding preschool, boosting teacher salaries, and making college more affordable. McAuliffe proposes expanding Medicaid coverage to save Virginia about $500 million dollars to use for education. Cuccinelli predicts that the pre-K spending will be far higher than this, estimating a $3.8 billion dollar price tag.  Virginia spends less than $4,000 per preschooler currently and has only about 75,000 4-year-olds not already in a public program.   NIEER’s estimate this to be $300 million, which assumes full enrollment although some families will choose private or homeschooling. Virginia could be spending more per pupil to raise program quality, but state costs are still unlikely to exceed $500 million even if the state paid the local share. Cuccinelli has proposed a voucher-like scholarship plan for preschoolers to expand options for children in low-performing schools.

New York City’s mayoral race has also included preschool in the debates. Democratic candidate and current Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio’s education plan involves creating a universal preschool program by increasing taxes on those who earn over $500,000. This would raise revenue for a universal preschool amounting to $580 million. Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota is also a supporter of universal preschool and all day pre-kindergarten, though he disagrees with the funding plan for the program. Lhota says the money to fund universal preschool is already within the budget and government needs to “find more efficiencies to pay for programs just like this.” In New York, there seems to be agreement that a lack of preschool results in an achievement gap initiated by the large income gap that the city holds. As DeBlasio calls it, it is a “Tale of Two Cities,” with New York having such a large income gap. Research has demonstrated that universal preschool can equalize the playing field for students by increasing test score percentiles in all income groups in children. Providing universal preschool also will minimize income inequalities over time, and could increase future earnings for disadvantaged children by 7 percent to 15 percent. New York state is already discussing expanding its preschool program. By minimizing the income gap in education, the achievement gap will in turn shrink over time.

Several other elections have early education implications, including Boston, Colorado, Memphis, and Maryland. On November 5th, many citizens will vote for their choice candidates. Education, especially early education, is a critical topic that not only affects us today, but also affects our future; something to keep in mind as you head for the ballot box.

– Michelle Horowitz, Policy Research Assistant


Preschool Loans Provide the Dollars, but Do They Make Sense?

August 22, 2013

The importance of early education for a child’s healthy development academically, socially and physically is undeniable; but at what price? New York City Council speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn recently announced an initiative to offer middle class families subsidized loans for day care and preschool, starting with 40 loans in the first year. These loans would add up to thousands of dollars, but in exchange middle and upper-middle class New Yorkers (with an income between $80,000-200,000 per year) would have the ability to send their children to the preschools they may be unable to afford on their own.  While this initiative would benefit families well above the national median income, should it have to come with such a hefty price tag?

This initiative makes it clear that even for families with relatively stable incomes, accessible, affordable, good preschool is difficult to obtain. Though New York state provides more preschool slots than many other states, this state-funded preschool plan has not met its goal of universal access. The federal Head Start program is targeted to the lowest income families, minimizing the options available. With the middle class already struggling to provide for their families in the current economic state of our country, quality educational opportunities should be more accessible for all. Not only does good early childhood education benefit the child in the long run by contributing to their development and future productivity, but it also benefits the parents of the child when it is designed to provide effective child care as well.

Girl Putting Money into Piggy Bank

Source: Poppy Thomas-Hill. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, this is not just a problem for the middle class.  Most young children in poverty do not attend a quality preschool; full-day, year round child care of high quality is even more unaffordable. A recent Bloomberg article points out that one “hidden” cost of the sequester is parents who are unable to maintain employment when their children’s Head Start slots are cut. With good full day preschool/daycare, parents can work a full day and not have to worry about sacrificing their already busy work schedules for their child’s future.

Access to quality pre-K is a concern for families regardless of income.  Somewhat surprisingly, even expensive private preschools are not guaranteed to be high quality programs.  The frequent attacks on public education in the media not withstanding, the pre-K field clearly shows that such public programs as Head Start are of higher average quality than even those purchased by the best educated, highest income parents.  There is clearly good reason to make sure the children of middle-class families have access to good pre-K. However, a better solution than private loans for programs of uncertain quality is public support to bring good pre-K to all children in the state so that all children have an equal opportunity to learn.

New York City has a shortage of pre-K slots according to a report from Public Advocate (and mayoral candidate) Bill deBlasio. Demand for slots outstrips availability by 3.5-1 to 5-1 depending on the borough. The citizens of New York City would benefit tremendously from a quality truly universal preschool program accessible to all income levels. The middle class already struggles enough; public policy should make it easier for them to ensure their children get a high quality education. Early ages in a child’s life are the most important for learning, and while education at this level should be valued, it should also be affordable and accessible to all. Instead of creating more private educational debt, New York should be expanding public educational opportunities.

– Michelle Horowitz, Research Assistant, NIEER

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER


State-Funded Preschool in America in a “State of Emergency”

April 29, 2013

YB 2012 press conference 4.29.13Today NIEER released its most recent edition of The State of Preschool 2012: State Preschool Yearbook at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This Yearbook marks a decade of data collection, from the 2001-2002 to 2011-2012 school years, tracking the changes in state-funded pre-K policies during some difficult financial times. Joining NIEER at the release were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius; President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten; Chairman Emeritus of the Vanguard Group Jack Brennan; and Celia Ayala, CEO of Los Angeles Universal Preschool.

This year’s findings were the most sobering since NIEER started collecting data. Total state-funding fell by nearly half a billion dollars from the previous year, an unprecedented drop. This translated to a $442 decrease in per-child funding, down to $3,841. Enrollment growth basically stagnated – while 10,000 more kids were enrolled in the 2011-2012 school year, population also grew. This translates to only 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds, the same as in the previous year.

As NIEER’s Director Steve Barnett noted in his remarks, “the 2012 cutbacks in quality standards were directly related to shortfalls in state funding.” Quality supports were particularly hard hit by the dramatic cuts. While three programs met a new quality standards benchmark – California for early learning standards, Ohio for site visits, and Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts for lead teacher degree – seven programs lost a total of nine benchmarks. We were particularly concerned that five of these losses were related to site visits for monitoring program quality – evidence indicates that only high-quality pre-K programs significantly benefit children’s learning and development, and visiting sites to gauge quality helps ensure programs are serving children’s needs. Quality is of the utmost importance in early education programs, as noted by LAUP CEO Celia Ayala whose experience as a former practitioner informs her work in the field.

The panel conversation at the National Press Club covered not only this new data on state pre-K in recent years but also what the field looks like going forward, including the implications of President Obama’s plan for Preschool for All in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal. The diversity of today’s panel members makes clear that the importance of high-quality pre-K and its lasting benefits are well-understood in our nation’s capital, in the classroom, and in the boardroom. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius noted that as a former governor, she would have welcomed federal investment in early education, while Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stressed the importance of collaboration among agencies and levels of government to best serve kids.  He called for a “preschool movement” in America to support the president’s plan

Ensuring children have access to high-quality pre-K isn’t just an issue for the short-term. A significant body of research finds that the benefits of pre-K far outweigh the cost. Good preschool education provides children with a stronger foundation for lifelong success–reducing school failure, raising test scores, and increasing educational attainment. Jack Brennan of the Vanguard Group presented the business case for early childhood education, noting that businesses are the future beneficiaries of the skills that children gain in pre-K. State budgets are only now recovering from the Great Recession and, as Randi Weingarten of AFT noted, now is the time to make sure high-quality pre-K is a top priority of legislators.

Video of the full release event is available on C-SPAN’s web site and the conversation is ongoing on Twitter. NIEER will also be continuing to spread the word of this report at a Capitol Hill Briefing tomorrow, co-sponsored with First Focus.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


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