In the United States, two-thirds of all 4-year-olds and almost half of all 3-year-olds are cared for outside the home before they start kindergarten. They may be in public or private school, family day care, for-profit childcare centers, or programs run by faith-based organizations or nonprofits. Children from the poorest families are eligible for the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs, which offer education and other social services to 970,000 preschoolers and their families.
Between 2006 and 2008, states more than doubled their spending on preschool to $4.6 billion, increasing enrollment from about 700,000 students to more than 1.1 million in 38 states. The Obama administration has emphasized its commitment to early childhood education by pushing Congress for increased federal funding for pre-k and giving bonus points to states that include preschool initiatives in their applications for grants from the Department of Education’s new $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund. The president’s education budget proposal calls for a 7.6 percent increase in education spending and $9.3 billion over 10 years to improve early childhood education programs. Obama has also advocated for a Presidential Early Learning Council that would push federal, state and local leaders to create high-quality “Zero to Five” programs.
New findings in neuroscience, child development and economics are behind the flurry of interest in educating the nation’s littlest learners. Scientists now know that the early years are critical, with the human brain reaching 80 percent of its adult size by age 3 and 90 percent by age 5. Children who don’t get adequate intellectual and emotional stimulation during this period are likely to fall behind their peers, and if they enter kindergarten without certain skills, they’ll continually have trouble catching up. Many scholars say that the well-known “achievement gap” emerges before children even start kindergarten, and the gap’s size remains relatively unchanged by the end of high school.
At the same time, social scientists have documented impressive gains by children who are enrolled in high-quality preschools: They have larger vocabularies, better social skills and higher achievement levels than children who don’t get that extra boost. And economists have shown that for every $1 invested in high-quality preschool, as much as $17 is returned to society in the long run through higher employment rates and earnings, reduced welfare and social services costs, and lower crime rates. Returns on investment for universal programs are much smaller, however. The large effects of targeted pre-k programs tend to be diluted when they are expanded to children from more affluent backgrounds.
There is some consensus on the ingredients of high-quality preschool, including teachers with training in early childhood education, low child-to-staff ratios, small classes, stimulating activities, structured routines, and independent play. Teachers who approach their work with goals, a sense of purpose, and specific, intentional learning strategies also make a difference.
Unfortunately, many programs don’t resemble the models lauded by experts. Only two states (Alabama and North Carolina) meet all 10 benchmarks of quality monitored by the National Institute on Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In far too many programs, curricula are ill-conceived and facilities are inappropriate for young children. Often, there is little communication between preschools and elementary schools, which means that many preschools are probably not giving kids what they need to be successful later. And few schools or districts organize early childhood education from pre-kindergarten to third grade in ways that provide coherent, sequenced standards, curricula and assessments based on a child’s development over this period.
Concerned about quality, some pre-k advocates have pushed states to require lead teachers in preschools to have bachelor’s degrees. Currently, only 27 states require this, and California, Florida and New York are not among them. Experts at NIEER and the advocacy group Pre-K Now argue that better-educated teachers have higher levels of interaction with students. However, a 2007 study by Diane Early and other researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found no association between classroom quality and a teacher’s level of education. Others worry that requiring bachelor’s degrees might reduce the number of minority and multilingual teachers. Head Start has thrown its lot in with the four-year-degree advocates: The reauthorized version of itself spends just $2,918 per child on pre-k, but when other local and federal sources are added in, the amount rises to more than $6,100.
Although legislatures have been forced by the recession to slash budgets, six states in 2010 maintained funding levels for pre-k, while 15 states actually increased spending. Alaska and Rhode Island even began funding preschool for the first time this year. Still, some worry that state-funded pre-k remains vulnerable to budget cuts, especially if the economy doesn’t bounce back quickly. Legislatures in 10 states – including New York, Massachusetts and Illinois – decreased pre-k investments in 2010.
Head Start and Early Head Start, whose combined budgets total about $7 billion, got a one-time, $2.1 billion injection of money from the February 2009 economic stimulus package. States are using this funding for various purposes, including avoiding program cuts in Florida and providing incentives for teacher training in Oregon.
Preschool’s potential long-term benefits to children and society as a whole have attracted a wide variety of supporters.
Policymakers are increasingly convinced that well-designed preschool programs help close race- and class-based achievement gaps in their states. Economists and business leaders have zeroed in on preschool as one of the most cost-effective strategies for addressing some of the nation’s workforce issues. And law enforcement officials embrace the idea of preschool because longitudinal studies have found that poor children who have participated in high-quality preschool programs are less likely to commit crimes.
Several foundations have joined the effort to expand access to high-quality preschool programs, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Joyce Foundation.
Governors, beginning in 1993 with Democrats Zell Miller of Georgia and James Hunt of North Carolina, have sought to make early childhood programs part of their legacy. Today, Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee and Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama have made expanding preschool programs the top priority of their administrations, as did former Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine.
There is opposition to preschool on both ends of the political spectrum. Many think that publicly funded services should only be provided to low-income families. Some conservatives espouse this opinion because they don’t buy the argument that pre-k is the answer to society’s problems. Other conservatives say it is not the government’s responsibility to subsidize a program that many middle- and upper-middle class families are willing to pay for. On the left, there’s Bruce Fuller of the University of California at Berkeley, who says that public pre-k programs will only exacerbate the achievement gap because they won’t help poor kids catch up to their middle-class peers. His position helped defeat a 2006 “Preschool for All” ballot initiative in California.
Proponents of universal preschool – no-fee pre-k for all children, regardless of family income – and some researchers counter that poor children receive greater benefits when they are in classrooms with more affluent children. And they argue that the achievement gap and a shortage of high-quality, affordable programs are also problems for middle-class families.
Opponents of any government-funded preschool – like the Goldwater Institute and the Reason Foundation – argue that children benefit most when they are at home with their parents. Others say that the free market, not bureaucratic school districts, should provide preschool options for families through private preschools (either for-profit or nonprofit). They also argue that the benefits of preschool fade once children are in elementary school and highlight findings that show behavior issues increase when children spend long hours in childcare centers.