Sunday, February 17, 2013

It Is Time for Universal Preschool Education: The Markets Have Spoken

President Obama’s call for an initiative to provide high quality preschool education was startling. First: it was an absolute surprise. Second: it was audacious to suggest a major new program in the midst of all the political acrimony over spending and existing government programs. Third: it was exciting to think, at least for a moment, that perhaps the most useful investment the nation could make might come to pass. 

A number of articles have appeared in the last few days that make useful contributions to the consideration of this initiative. Let us begin with a column by Gail Collins in the New York Times that reminds us of some history: the Congress in 1971 passed a bill to set up universal preschool education. Collins discussed the present and the past with Senator Walter Mondale, one of the bill’s sponsors.

"In 1971, when he was a senator, Mondale led the Congressional drive to make quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it. Everybody. The federal government would set standards and provide backup services like meals and medical and dental checkups. Tuition would depend on the family’s ability to pay."

"And it passed! Then Richard Nixon vetoed it, claiming Congress was proposing ‘communal approaches to child rearing.’ Now, 42 years later, working parents of every economic level scramble madly to find quality programs for their preschoolers, while the waiting lines for poor families looking for subsidized programs stretch on into infinity."

Collins then reflects on what might have been.

"Mondale’s Comprehensive Child Development Act was a bipartisan bill, which passed 63 to 17 in the Senate. It was an entitlement, and, if it had become law, it would have been one entitlement for little children in a world where most of the money goes to the elderly."

"People, think about this for a minute. We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are. "

"Would it be different if all the children born over the last 40 years had been given access to top-quality early education — programs that not only kept them safe while their parents worked, but gave them the language and reasoning skills that wealthy families pass on as a matter of course?"

"We’ll never know."

David Brooks chimed in with some thoughts from a skeptical conservative in his column in the New York Times.

"....on this subject, it’s best to be hardheaded. So I spent Wednesday and Thursday talking with experts and administration officials, trying to be skeptical.....Is the president trying to organize a bloated centralized program or is he trying to be a catalyst for local experimentation?"

"So far the news is very good. Obama is trying to significantly increase the number of kids with access to early education. The White House will come up with a dedicated revenue stream that will fund early education projects without adding to the deficit. These federal dollars will be used to match state spending, giving states, many of whom want to move aggressively, further incentive to expand and create programs."

"But Washington’s main role will be to measure outcomes, not determine the way states design their operations. Washington will insist that states establish good assessment tools. They will insist that pre-K efforts align with the K-12 system. But beyond that, states will have a lot of latitude."

The New York Times also provided this graphic that indicates the percentage of four-year-olds participating in state supported preschools in each state. The plot is interactive at the Times’ website.

While the notion of support for preschool education has usually been associated with the political left, a number of rather conservative states have been aggressive in providing these programs. Georgia is at 59% participation, South Carolina, 41%, Arkansas, 44%, Louisiana, 33%, Oklahoma, 76%, Texas, 52%, and West Virginia, 58%. All of these states exceed the national average of 28% participation. Also, there is Alabama which is only at 6% today, but has stated the intention to expand their program to cover everyone who wants it.

It would seem that conservatives, those with their boots on the ground working, have decided that state-supported preschool education works for their children. It also appears that conservatives, those with their heads up in the thin air, are ready to reject the notion. Michael Shear provides some background on this skepticism in another article in the New York Times.

"Despite the outlines of a plan that White House officials said would use federal money in support of state-based preschool programs, conservatives said they were suspicious that it would be a foot in the door toward more big government. They also said there was little evidence that large-scale preschool programs do much good for children in the long run. Advocates, who said that quality preschool education makes a significant difference in children’s lives, were bracing for a fight in Congress."

"’It just doesn’t make any sense,’ said Andrew J. Coulson, the director of the center for educational freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian group. ‘Why would you want to very expensively expand the programs like this if the evidence of effectiveness is not really sound’?"

The programs the states are initiating have mostly demanded that the teachers of preschool children in state-supported programs be as educated and as qualified as teachers they hire for the advanced grades. That has not always been the case. In education, as in most other things, you get what you pay for.

There have been a few small studies of poor children that extended for decades and indicated that students who received a quality preschool education were more successful in later life than those that did not. The results were rather astonishing in terms of the potential benefits from better educational outcomes. A more successful child ends up a more successful adult who pays more taxes, is less needy of social support, is less likely to end up in prison, and is more likely to successfully raise his/her own offspring.

These burgeoning state programs are beginning to generate their own data, and the states have found the data supports expanding their efforts. Sharon Lerner provides an excellent discussion of the efficacy of preschool education in an article in The American Prospect. She also provides a thorough summary of Oklahoma’s experience in initiating a universal program for four-year-olds.

The first estimates of what such a federal program might cost are actually rather modest considering the potential return on investment.

"W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, estimated that the president’s plan could cost between $3 billion and $20 billion a year. He called the plan "the biggest proposed change in American education since Brown v. the Board of Education," the court case that integrated schools. By comparison, the federal government spent about $108 billion last year on all education programs, according to Jason Delisle of the New America Foundation. That sum includes Education Department grants, Head Start and student-loan subsidies, among other programs."

Another estimate from the Center for American Progress placed the cost at an average of $9.8 billion per year over the next ten years.

It would seem that the educational marketplace has moved in the direction of providing broadly available preschool education as a way of growing more productive citizens.

There is another market at work that also provides some perspective. The wealthy of New York City, those who are supposed to be the best and the brightest, those most likely to contribute to the Cato Institute and conservative legislators, have bid up the price of private preschool education for their children to $30,000 a year and more. Competition for spots in the best preschools is said to be more intense than that involved in gaining entrance to Harvard. If money talks, this money is shouting:


1 comment:

  1. The way the school handles social and emotional issues should be similar to your approach at home. Consistency for preschool age children is essential in helping them develop. some Bangalore’s best preschools are there to take care of it perfectly.


Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged