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The Cost of Inaction on Universal Preschool

October 31, 2017
Cristina Novoa and Katie Hamm
Center for American Progress

About 3 million children in the United States begin kindergarten each fall, marking their entry into the American education system. However, a significant portion already have some school or early learning experience through preschool. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of children enrolled in preschool in the United States, from fewer than half a million in 1964 to nearly 4.7 million in 2014. Studies show that high-quality preschool works, and that children who attend preschool are more academically and socially prepared for kindergarten than their peers who did not attend. Evidence from long-term evaluations suggests that preschool has significant effects on important societal outcomes such as high school graduation, even as academic outcomes converge with children who did not attend preschool.

Despite research showing the benefits of preschool, American children have uneven access to quality affordable programs. In the 2015-16 school year, 43 states and the District of Columbia had some form of state-funded public preschool whereas seven states had none. As a result, just 32 percent of 4-year-olds across the United States attended state preschool programs. Moreover, although states have improved program quality in the past 15 years, nine programs still met fewer than half of the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) quality standards, a checklist of 10 research-based benchmarks designed to capture the resources needed to support high quality.*

Although studies suggest that all children can benefit from high-quality preschool and that quality preschool yields significant economic benefits, not all children have access to such opportunities. As a result, the United States loses money that would otherwise be saved or earned throughout a child’s lifetime. But what if the United States had universal high-quality public preschool that was publicly available to all children for the year before kindergarten? What would be the economic benefits over the lifespan of a single class of preschool children?