The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Preschool students at Kruse Elementary School in the Poudre School District in Colorado play at the water table during choice time. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

In education, there are always a host of programs and policies clamoring for funding. But of all the options policymakers could invest in, the most worthwhile may very well be universal preschool.

Recently, Nobel laureate James Heckman and his colleagues published a report that makes this point loud and clear. Their research analyzes the long-term benefits of a high-quality early-childhood program in North Carolina targeted at serving disadvantaged children and their families.

According to the researchers’ estimates, the long-term financial impact of the program — from labor incomes of participants, improved health and the quality of life, crime, education, and the labor income of the mothers of the participants through subsidizing their childcare — amounts to roughly a 13 percent annual rate of return.

Related: The state of American preschool, in six parts

Heckman and his colleagues show that investing in preschool makes strong financial sense. But that fact alone doesn’t provide states with the funding needed to foot the bill.

Preschool is still expensive. The programs examined in the report cost around $18,514 per student per year. Currently, states with preschool programs spend between roughly $1,700 and $16,400 per student per year. Those sticker prices are a big barrier for policymakers, who must weigh preschool against a wide array of other potential government programs while also trying to minimize or reduce taxes and government spending.

Innovation creates new options.

Related: More grandparents are raising grandchildren. Here’s how to help them

Since 2008, Utah has given its families an alternative to preschool called Upstart. Developed and administered through a state contract with the Waterford Institute, the Upstart program provides four-year-olds with in-home online curriculum.

Preschool is still extremely expensive.

For just 15 minutes per day, five days per week, students log into the curriculum to engage in adaptive lessons, digital books, songs, and activities designed to develop their knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science.

All participating students and their caregivers receive training at the beginning of the program and support throughout the program from a personal care representative who monitors the child’s progress and contacts the child’s family if the child’s usage falls below guidelines.

Waterford also gives parents support resources, technical assistance and, if needed, a computer and internet connectivity for accessing the online software.

Related: Is universal preschool the answer? Britain says ‘yes’

In the six years since it launched, Upstart’s results have shown students in the program to demonstrate strong gains in early literacy that significantly exceed those of students in matched control groups.

As these cohorts of Upstart students progress through their first few years of school, they continue to outperform their peers on state exams. Most noteworthy is the fact that special education students, low-income students and English learners have the largest gains relative to their comparable peer groups.

Given that Upstart costs just $725 per student, it is a more-than-sensible solution in states where universal preschool does not exist.

Online preschool programs such as Upstart are remarkable examples of how low-cost technology can expand the frontier of educational opportunities. Few parents have the professional training to know how to teach their children early literacy and numeracy. But online learning can fill in where parents’ knowledge and skills reach their limits.

Meanwhile, parents offer something that software cannot provide: the supervision, support, encouragement and praise that young children need in order to feel that learning is important and that they can learn successfully

While parents take care of students’ physical, social and emotional needs, the software takes care of delivering high-quality instruction so that students can start school on a strong footing.

Related: Is Head Start a failure?

Upstart isn’t available to parents outside of Utah and a few other states that are piloting the software. But there are a number of other online preschool programs — such as, online preschool lessons by Time4Learning and Embark by K12 Inc. — that give parents affordable options for developing their children’s early academic skills.

The app stores for popular mobile devices also have a host of early learning apps — including Endless Alphabet and Endless Numbers by Originator and apps by PBS Kids — that can help young children learn to recognize letters and numbers and develop an appreciation for reading, math, science, social studies and creative problem solving.

Granted, none of these programs are perfect substitutes for traditional preschool where children learn with their peers from an expert in early childhood education. Clearly, in-home online preschool does not help children learn how to interact socially outside of their home environments.

And research suggests that preschool quality depends a great deal on the training and experience of the teacher. But for parents who cannot afford private preschool and who do not live in a region with state-funded preschool options, these programs offer valuable access to early learning opportunities.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen institute, where he recently published “Teaching in the Machine Age: How innovation can make bad teachers good and good teachers better.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *