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The Case for Universal Pre-K as a Policy Priority

Tuition free college has been a staple of progressive campaigns, since Bernie Sanders’ Presidential run in  2016. While this policy has its merits, policymakers are overlooking a much larger problem —the income achievement gap. Minority and low-income students continually lag behind in all measures of achievement, including graduation rates, test scores, and earnings later in life. While free college tuition programs aim to provide all students with the opportunities to pursue a college degree, many students cannot even make it to high school graduation.

Instead, policymakers should focus on universal pre-K which catches students early and with a targeted impact, regardless of ability, language status, socioeconomic background, or race. Universal pre-K is a high quality, publicly funded program that provides access to all children who qualify with age requirements, usually at 3-4 years old.  As Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman pointed out, “the earlier a dollar is invested in a child’s life, the higher return it has later.”

Achievement gaps are already staggeringly high when children reach kindergarten. Compared to their white peers, African American and Hispanic children are about 10 months behind in math and 12 months behind in reading. Furthermore, there has been little progress in this gap over the past 50 years. This gap has far reaching effects, including on the country’s Gross Domestic Product. As the achievement gap affects the amount and quality of human capital, which is part of GDP calculations, it was estimated at a 2-4% loss in GDP in 2008 in the United States.

Strong pre-K programs have many effects on children, including a lower chance of being placed in special ed or repeating a grade, as well as an increase in graduation rates.  Moreover, high quality universal pre-K has the potential to reduce the achievement gap. A study from the National Institute for Early Education Research found that universal pre-K would close the achievement gap in math scores by an estimated 45% for African American students at 78% upon entering Kindergarten. Pre-K has also been shown to have effects outside the classroom by decreasing teen pregnancy rates and involvement with the criminal justice system.

While there are currently federal and state programs that offer pre-K to students who cannot afford privately funded care, these programs do not meet the demand of all families. The federal pre-K program, Head Start, serves only 42% of students who are eligible for the program. Boston, where preschools have been prioritized for many years, serves only 68% of the families who would like to enroll children; and in Massachusetts as a whole only 7% of all 4 year olds are enrolled in free preschool.

The cost of pre-K is a crisis; in some states the cost of child care for just one child is more than the tuition at a state college. Even worse, average yearly child care expenses exceed median rent in every state. Roughly one in four families spend more than 10% of their income on childcare, and often this care has little to no effect on the kindergarten readiness of a child. Not only is universal pre-K helpful for closing the achievement gap, it also takes away the burden of childcare, which often falls disproportionately on mothers.

This burden of childcare is extremely dilapidating for low-income families, and causes generational ramifications, including contribution to the gender wage gap. Many families often face a difficult choice: keeping a paying job but having to pay for childcare, or forgoing employment to provide child care themselves. For low income families, child care costs can be as much as half the family income, which in a two working parent household could force one parent to quit their job. This burden more often falls on the mother, who then loses valuable earnings and years of experience, leading to a lower lifetime earnings potential.

Many of these families are attempting to access federal or state subsidized child care, but due to low funding, access is very limited.  In a study in New York City, where universal pre-K has been a priority of Mayor Bloomberg, many parents who had their children on waitlists for child care assistance lost their jobs or were unable to work directly due to child care.

Proposals for universal pre-K will increase the workforce participation of working parents which can decrease the gender wage gap and increase earnings and employment for families. The Child Care for Working Families Act, legislation introduced into the Senate and House, aims to guarantee child care assistance to families earning up to 150% of the median income in their state.  While this legislation does not provide universal pre-K, preliminary studies claim more than 1.6 million parents would join the labor force, directly as a result of these child care subsidies. With universal pre-K, the number of parents entering the workforce is expected to increase even more.

While nearly 20 states have some sort of free college tuition program, only Vermont; Washington, DC; and Florida have universal pre-K. Other states have policies in place for programs that expand publicly funded childcare but are not universal. For a program to be considered universal, all children who meet the age requirement must be able to enroll, regardless of income, language, or other factors.

However, this issue of universal pre-K has not garnered the same political attention as free college tuition programs. Even the benefits of universal pre-K have been debated, mostly because of the large costs associated with these programs. That being said, the return on investment for every dollar spent on preschool can be as high as $17, especially in high quality classrooms with well-trained teachers. The costs of universal pre-K are also completely dwarfed when compared with dramatic free-college tuition plans. In Bernie Sanders original free state and community college tuition for all, he proposed $75 billion dollars would need to be raised. Free tuition also does not cover large amounts of the costs associated with college including textbooks and lost wages, opportunity costs that are not associated with universal pre-K.

While there are benefits to both free college tuition programs and universal pre-K, in order to work to close the persistent achievement gap policymakers must make a commitment to starting early. Many students are at a disadvantage before they even step into kindergarten, and this leads to inequality in all aspects of their lives. If there is no urgency to fix these inequalities early, any money spent on easing burdens for these students later in the education system are too little, too late. In order to provide quality, equitable educational for all, America must commit to providing high quality, universal pre-K.

Photo: “Classroom