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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

Considering the lifetime benefits to the individual and society, a National Institutes of Health study estimated that every dollar spent on early childhood education would generate between $4 and $11 of economic benefits over a child’s lifetime. Robert Lynch of Rice University summarizes, “putting money into early childhood education is perhaps the soundest investment one could make today.”

Funding and fade-out

Obama has proposed funding early childhood programs through tobacco taxes. (Obama is open to alternatives to that approach, which have been considered by experts, but has not received widespread political attention.) This is expected to produce $75 billion, which the federal government would presumably funnel to the states for distribution to local school districts charged with administering universal preschool.

Programs would be charged with introducing evidence-based curriculums, small class sizes, hiring teachers with bachelor’s degrees, with salaries comparable to K-12 teachers, as well as extensive program monitoring and an open door policy for all students whose families are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

At a conference at the CATO Institute earlier in the month, several of the nation’s leading education researchers on the subject agreed that significant academic and social results accrue while children are in high-quality preschool and that at least some of the benefits extend to kindergarten.

The first longitudinal study of preschool began in 1965 and collected data as the participants reached ages 14, 15, 19, 27 and 41. The Perry preschool study shows that, compared to their cohorts, students who attended preschool have been significantly more successful in cognitive performance, high school graduation rates, higher education and in earning more money. They are also less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.

The Abecedarian Early Intervention Project followed. As with the Perry study, the children were low-income and were tracked for decades — in this case, up to age 30. Unlike Perry, study participants first began child-care and educational programs while in infancy. There have been significant benefits in academic skills, educational attainment, employment and parenthood.

A summary of this and other research found that preschool seems to extend benefits to both typical and special-needs children, to native English speakers and their dual-language learning counterparts. Other studies concur in this finding: while poor kids benefit more, everyone makes significant advances.

Yet students’ early successes can diminish in size or disappear almost entirely early in elementary school. The well-regarded Head Start Impact Study found an impressive range of gains for participants. But those gains did not last.

The students who began the federal Head Start program at the age of 4 maintained a small advantage in vocabulary at the end of first grade, and their improved reading skills persisted through third grade. The 3-year-olds had higher oral comprehension skills at the end of first grade. Researchers tend to agree that Head Start participants perform at about the same level as their peers early in elementary school.

In short, many of the advances made in pre-kindergarten programs seem to “fade out.”

Policy implications

Given the “fade-out,” critics including Grover J. Whitehurst of the Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution question the need for universal, as oppose to targeted, preschool funding.

Whitehurst urged targeting programs to the most disadvantaged students, including those who speak English as a second-language. Targeting may bring about the key short- and long-term benefits for the students and for society, and a role that he called a “classic government function.”

Critics outside the education community like Michelle Malkin call Obama’s prescription a “federal encroachment into our children’s lives at younger and younger ages.” Yet that argument runs up against a line of experts, including Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, who says that a universal preschool program “is one of the most important education initiatives, maybe since Brown versus Board of Education.”

Editor's Note: This story has been modified to make it clear that the benefits of early childhood education found in research conducted by University of Chicago economist James Heckman applies to disadvantaged children as opposed to all children.

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