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Obama reiterates goal of universal preschool, but how will the nation pay for it?

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28 2014 11:00 p.m. MST

German Duenas-Padilla, Kylee Stauffer and Tayden Larsen work on water color paintings in Aubrey Katyryniuk's preschool class Monday, March 4, 2013 at Calvin Smith Elementary school in Taylorsville.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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Currently, fewer than 30 percent of 4-year-olds attend preschool in the United States. During the State of the Union address last year, President Obama proposed partnering with states so that all low- and moderate-income families would have access to such programs.

In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Obama returned to this theme: “Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education. Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old. As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight.”

Although members of both major parties have in the past year co-sponsored congressional bills consistent with the White House proposal, those bills are unlikely to make it to the president’s desk because the political reality of tight funding has stalled action.

Instead, Obama highlighted how 30 states have raised pre-kindergarten funding on their own. And he promised that — whether or not Congress acts — “this year, we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children.” He said, “I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.”

Preschools and market failure

One cause is divergence over how academics interpret research on the costs and benefits of such additional education. Some encourage universal education programs while others advise targeting populations where the greatest benefits can occur.

While some experts find significant gains in cognitive, physical, emotional, social and language skills among preschoolers, other studies demonstrate that these gains dissipate or disappear in a few years.

As a result, a variety of scholars support gathering more data through national demonstration programs before launching a complex set of hundreds of local initiatives aimed at universality.

Still, many believe that early childhood education offers significant benefits to low- and middle-income families and that it probably has benefits in cognitive and life improvements for all social and economic groups.

One influential school of thought holds that early childhood education “fixes a market failure,” in the words of University of Chicago economist and Nobel Prize laureate James Heckman. This isn’t “some warm, fuzzy notion,” but a sound public policy investment based on “hard, observable data,” he said.

Universal early education could cost $10 to $25 billion annually. Although that price tag may appear steep, many economists are saying that it’s a bargain: early childhood education generates “a 7 to 10 percent per annum return on investment” in terms of less governmental expenditures in the future,future for disadvantaged children, according to Heckman.

Preschool does much more than simply boost cognitive skills and academic success, argues Heckman and other economists who hold this view. The equation goes like this: improving personal, social and economic outcomes, both for the individuals and society, leads to a positive-feedback loop. Once children learn better attitudes about school and display higher self-esteem, academic skills and educational attainment rise; later, graduation rates rise and more pursue higher education; and as participants progress through life, benefits continue to accrue.

Fewer use welfare, and employment rates are higher. Criminal activity is averted and fewer children are born out of wedlock. In adulthood, the now-preschoolers would presumably pay higher taxes because they would enjoy higher income levels, cost the health care system less and even instill greater values of self-reliance in their future children.

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