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Middle-Class Families Caught in a Pre-K Squeeze

July 6, 2018
Lillian Mongeau
The Hechinger Report

Here’s something you probably already know: High-quality preschool provides academic and social benefits for low-income children.

Here’s something you may not know: Preschool provides benefits, albeit smaller ones, for middle-class kids too.

And yet, though most countries with developed economies offer public preschool as a standard benefit to all 4-year-olds, America does not. Instead, low-income parents here scramble for scarce public spots while middle-income parents scrounge to pay for increasingly costly private preschool.

“Only very wealthy people can afford current decent care and education (for young children),” said Richard Brandon, a political scientist recently retired from the University of Washington and co-author of a 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report on financing early education. “Very few can afford what we estimate is the cost of quality care.”

Brandon and his co-authors peg the full-time, full-year cost of sending a child to a preschool with ample, safe facilities, a developmentally appropriate curriculum and well-paid teachers at $13,655 per child. That’s about $1,000 more than the national average per pupil spending in K-12, as calculated by the National Center for Education Statistics.

It’s also about 16 percent of an $88,000 annual income, more than double the 7 percent figure the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deems “affordable.” Yet, with few exceptions, families earning $88,000 a year — right in the middle of the middle class — get no government help to cover the cost of educating their 4-year-olds.