Despite studies showing that participation in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs yields long-lasting academic and social benefits, especially for low-income children, many families still lack access to adequate early childhood education programs. The majority of preschoolers who are enrolled are in private programs, whose availability and quality varies with location and parental income. Although the federal Head Start program has grown over the last decade, the program cannot reach all eligible children. Moreover, the minimal education requirements and low pay afforded to Head Start teachers makes it difficult to recruit qualified instructors, which undermines the program’s effectiveness. The responsibility for bridging this gap has been left primarily to the states, whose policies vary widely in the scope and quality of the programs they provide.
Long-Term Benefits and Cost Savings
Few policymakers harbor real doubts about the immediate benefits of participation in pre-kindergarten programs, which include increased school readiness, improved social skills, and early identification of special needs students. However, the price tag for any large-scale preschool program is bound to be substantial, which raises the question: do the benefits of early childhood education justify the expense?
Recent research has attempted to answer this question and has found that pre-kindergarten produces long-term academic and social gains, as well as economic gains that more than offset its cost:
The Chicago Child Parent Center study found that low-income children who participated in an early intervention preschool program had higher levels of academic achievement in high school, were less likely to be held back a grade or require special education, and experienced lower rates of juvenile delinquency. The study estimated that a half-day pre-kindergarten program created $48,000 in economic benefits per child by decreasing the need for remedial education, reducing justice system expenditures, and increasing participants’ projected future earnings and tax revenues.
At age 27, participants in the Perry Preschool project, which targeted very low-income minority youth, were less likely to have been arrested, earned higher salaries on average, and had fewer out-of-wedlock births than non-participants. The researchers concluded that the two-year, half-day program produced $108,000 in benefits to society per child.
These studies have helped advocates persuade some politicians and business leaders to promote universal pre-kindergarten as a worthwhile economic investment.
Access to Preschool Varies by State
While research has led to an increased awareness of the potential benefits of early childhood education, access to affordable programs remains uneven. Currently, 40 states fund some type of preschool program, but only Georgia, Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia have established universal pre-kindergarten. A few other states, including Louisiana, Florida, New York, and West Virginia have taken steps toward developing universal programs.
The remaining states apply various eligibility criteria to families hoping to participate in the program; usually low-income children or those at risk of academic failure qualify, those who benefit the most. The standards used to admit children to these programs are inconsistent, and many children who would be eligible for pre-kindergarten in one state are ineligible in another.
In addition, states vary widely in the proportion of communities that are able to offer preschool programs. In a few states, virtually every district has a pre-kindergarten program, while in other states, only a few do.
Quality is Key to Children’s Success
Quality programs are required in order for preschool attendance to produce positive effects. Today, the quality of many programs is too low to generate lasting academic and social success.
Experts agree that certain factors directly affect the quality of pre-kindergarten programs:
Sufficient education among teachers and staff-teachers should have bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education.
Adequate compensation for teachers and staff-teachers should have salaries similar to K-12 educators.
Low child-staff ratios and appropriate group sizes.
Adequate, well-equipped facilities.
Like the degree of access, the quality standards for public preschool programs vary widely from state to state. Teacher qualification and compensation are the most pressing of these quality issues: less than half of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs require teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree, and salaries are generally very low. Also, relatively few states employ comprehensive curriculum standards. Overall, disadvantaged children, who may benefit most from an effective program, are more likely to attend a low-quality preschool.
Awareness of the benefits of quality early childhood education is on the rise among policymakers, and leaders in several states are currently debating or working toward establishing universal pre-kindergarten programs.
Business Says Preschool Pays Big Dividends
Business leaders and representatives of financial institutions, who have come to see preschool programs as wise investments for the nation’s future, support these efforts. For example:
In March 2003, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Minn. published an article asking the state government to create an early childhood education foundation to fund pre-kindergarten programs for all of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds. The article’s authors say investing in a quality preschool program can create a 12% annual return, after inflation.
In May 2003, the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from leading U.S. corporations, released a position paper advocating strong federal and state commitments to pre-kindergarten programs. The group concluded that such a commitment is crucial to the success of efforts to improve public education and to strengthen the workforce.
Courts Find Preschool Essential
The courts have also expressed the conviction that access to quality preschool programs is necessary to improve educational opportunity, especially for disadvantaged students. The first court-ordered early childhood education program was established in New Jersey as part of the landmark school funding case Abbott v. Burke. In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to implement full-day preschool programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds in disadvantaged school districts known as Abbott districts. In 2002-2003, the programs served over 36,000 children.
Other recent decisions in state school funding cases have also articulated the importance of pre-kindergarten programs:
In October 2000, the North Carolina trial court, in Hoke County v. State, ordered funding for pre-kindergarten programs for all “at-risk” 4-year-olds.
In December 2003, the District Court of Shawnee County, Kansas, declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional in Montoy v. State. The court noted with approval the testimony of Kansas educators who recommended a comprehensive preschool program as part of the state’s strategy for improving education outcomes for the most challenging students.
In February 2004, the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed two special masters to evaluate the state’s compliance with the court’s November 2002 decision declaring the state’s school finance system unconstitutional. The special masters’ April 2004 report indicated that the state cannot offer a “substantially equal educational opportunity,” the constitutional standard, without preschool programs for disadvantaged children.
The National Institute for Early Education Research releases an annual State of Preschool Yearbook , which includes information about programs in all 50 states. NIEER also provides extensive state-by-state information in its online state databank.
The Early Childhood Education Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts supports the development of high-quality early education programs. The initiative led to the creation of the Trust for Early Education, which works at the state and federal levels to advocate for universal pre-kindergarten.
Early Childhood Focus provides the latest news items related to early childhood education.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children is the largest organization of early childhood educators in the United States.
The National Center for Early Development and Learning is a national early childhood education research department supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Educational Sciences.
Starting at 3 is an advocacy project of New Jersey’s Education Law Center that aims to establish a legal right to early childhood education. The project provides direct technical assistance to attorneys and advocates involved in litigation asserting the right to preschool education.
The National Access Network’s policy brief summarizes the developments in students’ rights to preschool services.