Op-Ed: Setting the Record Straight—Why Pre-K for All is a Wise Public Investment

The Obama administration’s plans to expand high-quality pre-k has ignited a firestorm of protest from libertarians and others based on highly-selective readings of preschool research and disregard for the needs of America’s children and families. Protests of the administration’s plans have shown up in op-ed articles and on TV, including a John Stossel special on ABC. Are they right to accuse the President and others of operating a “scam,” to use their words? We don’t think so. That accusation is based on falsehoods and misrepresentation of scientific research.

Stossel echoes comments heard from many of the opponents of government-funded pre-k when he says, “most American kids already attend pre-school. Parents pay for it themselves and if they can’t afford it there are subsidies and free programs like Head Start.”

The statement acknowledges that the wealthy—presumably well educated—pay for preschool education for their kids. Clearly, those parents understand the benefits to their children from preschool education. Unfortunately, it is not true that government programs and subsidies are available to everyone who needs them. Less than half of young children in poverty are enrolled in a public preschool program at ages three and four. The situation is worse for children in lower- and middle-income working families who manage to stay above the poverty line. One-third of their children attend no preschool at age four, and 6 of 10 do not attend at three.

Yet that is only one part of the preschool problem. Good preschool education is expensive, and it is even more costly for parents who must have fulltime child care to earn enough to meet their families’ needs. As a result the preschool programs that many American’s buy on their own are not very educationally effective. A recent California study found fewer than 1 in 5 private preschools could be called “good.” California’s state-funded pre-K programs were found to be of higher quality, but available to few children.

Opponents would have Americans believe that any benefits of public preschool education disappear after a few years. They selectively pick out a few studies to fit their preconceptions and make false claims about studies that contradict their views. In fact, public preschool education has been found to have substantial effects that last well beyond the early grades of school, benefiting children and taxpayers.

The conclusion that high-quality preschool has lasting benefits does not rest on one small study or even a handful. A recent, peer-reviewed study summarizes the results of 123 studies, finding positive effects on learning, grade repetition and special education placements, and behavior that persist beyond the early elementary years. Other recent studies of today’s publicly funded pre-K programs add to the evidence, finding large educational gains for children regardless of their family backgrounds.

Disadvantaged children benefit most, and need pre-K most, but all children have been found to benefit. What does this mean for children? In Oklahoma, children from all backgrounds enter kindergarten with more advanced early literacy and math skills. Literacy gains for Hispanic children are particularly large, equivalent to another school year’s growth. In New Jersey, high-quality, universal Pre-K in 31 lower-income school districts has raised test scores and cut grade repetition in half by the end of second grade.

The public preschool programs that have proven most effective have high standards, pay enough to hire highly qualified teachers, and work hard to see that good education takes place in every classroom. Public programs can, and should, be continuously improved. Many states and the federal government have taken steps to improve quality in recent years. More improvements are needed, but that doesn’t mean that public preschool programs are not already providing a good return on taxpayer dollars.

Preschool is perhaps the most vibrant and creative sector of public education in America. From the critics, one would never know that public pre-K program is entirely voluntary and provides parents with additional options for their children. Many public pre-K programs are offered through the private sector. For-profit, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations, as well as the public schools, deliver Head Start and state pre-K, increasing competition and parental choice without sacrificing quality.

The education of America’s young children is too important to be a political football, kicked around to score a few points without regard for the truth. As scientists committed to the use of knowledge to improve the lives of children and families, we seek to set the record straight. Publicly funded preschool education can help all parents prepare their children for success in the 21st Century–preventing costly problems and enriching the human capital of our nation in ways that will benefit all Americans for decades to come.

W. Steven Barnett, Co-Director, National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers University
Richard M. Clifford, Senior Scientist, Frank Porter Graham Institute, University of North Carolina
David Dickinson, Professor of Education, Vanderbilt University
Ellen C. Frede, Co-Director, National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers University
Eugene Garcia, Vice President, Education Partnerships, Arizona State University
Rochel Gelman, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Science, Rutgers University
David Kirp, Professor of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley
Henry Levin, Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University
Arthur Reynolds, Professor, University of Minnesota
Larry Schweinhart, President, High/Scope Educational Research Foundation
Deborah Stipek, Dean, School of Education, Stanford University
Wolfgang Tietze, Professor, Freie Universität Berlin
Ross Thompson, Professor, University of California, Davis
Deborah Vandell, Dean, School of Education, University of California, Irvine
Mary Eming Young, M.D., Lead Early Child Development Specialist, World Bank
Edward Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology (Emeritus), Yale University

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