Principles for New Federal Early Education Policy Initiatives

Anticipation is building that President Obama will propose a significant new investment in early education in his State of the Union address. There are many big issues to be addressed, and young children always seem to be considered a small issue so it would make a real statement if the President chose to mention them.  There are two good reasons to do so.  First, new investments in young children make sense from a purely economic perspective—high-quality early education increases long-term productivity and economic growth and reduces inequality.  Second, this is a political winner.  The states leading the way on access to quality pre-K are a highly bi-partisan mix—New Jersey, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Maryland, Georgia, and West Virginia. Two of the newest high-quality start-ups are Rhode Island and Alaska.  When Americans put their children’s future first, that stubborn partisan divide seems to disappear.  And, as the cost is quite modest that offers hope a well-designed plan might actually make it through Congress.

Such a plan should address two significant shortcomings in our current situation. Many children still have no access at all to preschool education. Among children from low-income families, more than 1 in 3 attends no preschool program at age 4 and most do not attend at age 3. For those lucky enough to attend a state-funded program, real spending per child declined during the Great Recession, sapping quality. Children in higher income families have better access to programs, but those are not necessarily of high quality. In fact a Rand study of quality in California revealed that access to high-quality preschool is a big problem for middle- and upper-income families who do not qualify for income-tested public programs.

Preschool classroom


Having studied preschool education programs closely, we propose the following principles for new proposed federal investments in early learning:

  • Put child development first. America does not need more poor quality child care; it needs serious investment in high-quality education that also recognizes the child care needs of parents.
  • Offer quality preschool education to all children regardless of family income.  Every child is important.  Children from middle- and higher-income families are at lower risk of school failure and other problems, but they fail to succeed at a rate that is far too high. In the interests of equity, offer a higher match for children from low-income families.
  • Prepare and pay all teachers well, including those in Head Start. High-quality education requires excellent teachers, which in turn requires adequate pay and preparation. Teacher preparation does not end with college graduation, so federal matching funds should be contingent on states putting into place continuous improvement processes that focus on learning and teaching.
  • Make public preschool education free to all. Public education benefits everyone, and we should all pay for it through taxes.  Better off families can be expected to pay for additional hours provided for child care purposes beyond the school day.  Create sustainable early education finance systems.  States should be encouraged to support early education through school funding formulas that guarantee steady funding equivalent to that provided to K-12 students.
  • Begin with age 4 as this is the low-hanging fruit, but don’t forget about younger children.  Access to early education drops dramatically at age 3, and every age is important.  Nevertheless, we must remember that most of 4-year-olds do not yet attend a high-quality pre-K.
  • Provide incentives to all states to move forward, from those that have no state-funded pre-K programs at all to others that serve all 4-year-olds.
  • Support research to design more effective approaches to early education. The federal government is ideally positioned to support research and development through Early Head Start and Head Start.  Permitted the flexibility, these federal programs can be the nation’s engineers of early education excellence rather than Gullivers tied down by myriad strands of Lilliputian regulation.

If these principles guide a new federal plan, we believe they would lead to smart new investments in early learning that everyone can get behind.

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER