Fulfilling the Promise of Universal Pre-K

teacher and child at sandboxFew government investments pay the dividends of high-quality pre-kindergarten education, which has been found to return as much as $10 for every dollar invested, from higher earnings, lower crime, and reduced government costs later in life. Yet, despite powerful evidence that it works, states have a checkered history of implementing quality pre-K. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has now wisely recommended increasing the state’s investment in preschool education and has proposed new support for full-day pre-K. His challenge will be to avoid the pitfalls of other states and learn from their checkered past.

Across the nation, pre-K for all, or even most, has been achieved sporadically. Only eight states – Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – provide pre-K to more than half of their 4-year-olds. New York trails these states, enrolling only 45 percent at age 4. New York lags behind such states as Florida and Texas not just on pre-K but on achievement at fourth grade, the first point at which we can compare achievement across the states.

New York has professed to offer universal pre-K since 1997, originally with a timetable to serve all children by 2002; follow-through has been the state’s downfall. As the governor fills in the details of his plan, he will have an opportunity to put New York back on track to fulfilling that promise. Success will require strong leadership and an actionable plan. In designing that plan, he should heed three important lessons from other states’ experiences.

First, New York must set a realistic but firm deadline for achieving the goal of pre-K for all with a series of milestones along the way. The state should consider following the example of West Virginia, which specified a number of “soft” mid-course deadlines for rolling out access and quality standards over a decade and is now confidently approaching the finish line of universal access in the fall of 2013. As generations of preschoolers have learned from the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

Second, quality must not be sacrificed in pursuit of quantity. Deadlines should be set based on the state’s capacity to build and maintain pre-K at a high standard. It has proven far easier to build quality from the start than to raise quality after a program has been brought to scale. Across the Hudson, New Jersey provides pre-K to fewer children, but it has transformed preschools in its poorest urban communities into a high-quality system of pre-K that attracts visitors from around the globe to see world-class early education.  New York should put into place a continuous quality improvement system to ensure that the quality of teaching and learning increases – not just the numbers enrolled.

Third, to improve quality and access slowly but surely, an uncapped stable statewide funding formula is needed that enables every local community to move forward as fast as local conditions permit. States like New York that annually set a fixed expenditure for pre-K waste funds in years when few are prepared to move forward, and limit growth when many are prepared to advance. The simplest and most effective approach is to add pre-K into the school funding formula for K-12. States that have done this are the only ones to significantly increase access to pre-K during the Great Recession.

New York has come a long way from a decade ago when it offered preschool education to only about a quarter of its 4-year-olds, but it is nowhere near its goal of quality pre-K for all. It can achieve that goal by heeding these lessons. Without learning from them, New York will continue to shut thousands of deserving children out of pre-K and continue to pay the price of this unkept promise in higher rates of school failure and crime – and lower incomes – for years to come.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER