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universal preschool
Lillian Renfro, 5, “roasts” a “marshmallow” during free-play time in her preschool classroom in Clinton, Oklahoma. The state is one of just a handful of states that offer universal preschool. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

Preschool is most likely to help low-income children if their classmates come from a range of family incomes, according to a new study.

The new research contradicts the current strategy in most states of targeting public preschool only to low-income kids. That approach is based on the results of many earlier studies that have found attending preschool helps kids from disadvantaged backgrounds start kindergarten on a stronger academic footing. The benefits for higher income children are less pronounced. That is why most states and the federal government choose to spend taxpayer dollars on “targeted” preschool programs open only to low-income families.

But the new study, just updated in December by Dartmouth College economist Elizabeth Cascio, finds that universal programs have a significant positive effect on the reading scores of poor kids, while targeted programs do not. The effect on math scores is also positive but not statistically significant, Cascio said.

Even though universal preschool programs are more expensive because they serve more children, Cascio found that these programs were also more cost-effective  because low-income students did so much better.

“I was sort of skeptical that this would be the result,” Cascio said. She said she expected it would be “much more efficient to just spend the money on disadvantaged kids.”

But when she compared the end-of-year test scores of low-income children who had attended preschool to those who hadn’t, she found that low-income preschoolers who had attended preschool classes with peers from other economic strata performed the best. To complete her analysis, Cascio compared the academic outcomes of preschoolers who qualified for federal free- or reduced-price lunch programs, a standard measure of poverty, in states that offered universal preschool to similar preschoolers in states that offered only targeted preschool.

Related: Eight ways to introduce kids to STEM at an early age

Most middle-class American families who send their kids to preschool select some form of private preschool. That means offering universal preschool is “essentially giving a cash transfer to middle-class families,” Cascio said. “But what if higher income kids are needed to make prek more productive for disadvantaged kids?”

Cascio found that universal and targeted state public programs cost about the same per student and met many of the same quality guidelines. The difference in student performance, she writes, could not be explained by differences in class size or teacher education. She also ran tests on her data to make sure that demographics weren’t affecting the results. (They weren’t.) Instead, she posits that “buying” poor children classroom access to their higher income peers and the political capital of their peers’ parents is the likely reason for the success of universal preschool.

Cascio’s research did not examine the effect of universal preschool on middle-class children, other than to observe that where it was offered, middle-class families availed themselves of the opportunity to send their children to free public preschool.

Related: Why talking — and listening — to your child could be key to brain development

“What if higher income kids are needed to make prek more productive for disadvantaged kids?”

For years, voters from all political parties have been telling pollsters at the First Five Years Fund, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on early learning, that they are in favor of more funding for early childhood education. In 2017, 79 percent of voters polled, including 80 percent of Trump voters, said they wanted Congress and the administration to work together to improve the quality of child care and make it more affordable to parents. However, another recent poll found that when prompted to consider the possibility of increased taxes to fund more early care programs, voters favored targeted preschool over universal programs.

The omnibus spending bill President Donald Trump signed on March 23 comes with significant increases in federal funding for child care and preschool assistance to low-income families. The spending bill nearly doubles, to $5.22 billion, the amount available for child care vouchers through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which is administered by the states. It also increases the amount of money available to Head Start, a federally run preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds. In keeping with past practice, the bill does not attempt to move the country toward universal preschool.

Related: Should Wall Street pay for preschool?

Cascio’s paper uses data collected on children born in 2001 and followed through kindergarten entry by the National Center for Education Statistics’ Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. It was first published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research in March 2017 and updated in December.

Though she is intrigued by the findings, Cascio cautions that there are limitations to her research. “It’s just one paper,” she said, “but I hope it gets a conversation started about this in a new way that we can build on in the future.”

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