Kids Need an Early Start: Universal preschool education may be the best investment Americans can make in our children’s education – and our nation’s future.

The keys to academic success for disadvantaged children may not be smaller class sizes, better-prepared teachers, tougher standards, more accountability, or greater choice—laudable as these goals may be. They may instead hinge on a single factor: preschool.

Because of their family environments, too many children come to school ill-prepared to learn. They lack language skills, social skills, and motivation. In Oxford, Miss., for example, Superintendent John Jordan reports that 5-year-olds sometimes arrive in kindergarten not knowing their own names—only their nicknames. Almost all experts now agree that a preschool experience or its first cousin—high quality, educationally-oriented child care—is one of the most effective strategies for improving later school performance.

Consider the emphasis on reducing class size. The evidence suggests that its major benefits come from the extra socialization that it allows teachers to provide to children in the early grades. Yet a more cost-effective solution is to provide these same children with appropriate experiences before they enter school. Ironically, by attempting to reduce class size, schools are competing for staff with child care and preschool programs—to the detriment of the latter.

What evidence is there that increased support for pre-kindergarten will have the hoped-for effects on school readiness? The best studies strongly suggest that children benefit greatly from an early learning experience. High-quality programs have produced short-term gains in cognitive functioning and longer-term gains in school achievement and social adjustment. Recent reviews of the literature by the Rand Corporation, by Steven Barnett at Rutgers University, and by a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin conclude that early interventions, especially with disadvantaged children, have produced a variety of positive results. Those results include higher school achievement, less retention in grade, a reduced need for special education at a later age, and less crime. The study estimates that the most effective programs create savings to the government of $13,000 to $19,000 per child above the cost of the pre-school programs themselves. The best results come from programs that begin early, include children from the most disadvantaged homes, and provide intensive education and other services over a lengthy period.

Critics of this literature have emphasized that the purely cognitive gains fade as children age, that the studies are not without their flaws, and that model programs are difficult to take to scale. These critics have tended to focus on IQ improvements and to ignore the improvements in school performance found by most studies. They also expect research to achieve an unobtainable level of certainty about effectiveness.

In the wake of welfare reform, Congress has appropriated substantial sums for child care, recognizing that if we are going to require low-income mothers to work, we must also provide them with a safe place to leave their children. This suggests a world in which both high-quality child care and early education are provided to low-income families. Done right, this would be a two-time winner: enabling mothers to work and ensuring that children from high-risk families were ready for school.

The importance of early education is increasingly recognized at the state level, where public funding of preschool programs is catching on, albeit at an uneven pace. Other countries have also recognized the need to educate children from an early age. In France and Italy, for example, nearly all children 3 to 5 years old are enrolled in publicly funded preschools.

Toward a New Federal Commitment to Early Education

Individual families and some states will undoubtedly continue to make such investments in young children. Some will argue that a federal role is unnecessary or even counterproductive. There is considerable sentiment in this country for keeping education, including preschool, as a state and local responsibility, and this tradition is deeply ingrained. But only the federal government can make sure that all children have equal access to a good education, regardless of the state or community in which they live.

Although providing medical care and retirement benefits to the elderly or even welfare benefits and food stamps to the poor are time-honored federal commitments, these programs are better thought of as picking up the pieces after the education system has failed. Any one state or community that neglects the education of its children imposes large costs on the rest of us.

There are three different ways in which the federal government could intervene:

1. Provide federal funding while allowing states and local communities flexibility to use the money in diverse ways on the condition that they enroll more children in accredited facilities, target modest-income families, and use federal dollars to supplement, not supplant, state spending. Standards for accreditation could be established by states or by the federal government with the advice of professional groups and benchmarked over time against school-readiness scores. A block grant to the states would enable more of them to provide the kind of innovative programs adopted by a number of states in recent years. Georgia and New York, for example, have implemented universal pre-kindergarten programs. California is spending the $750 million a year raised from a tax on tobacco to provide early childhood programs in every community. Some states, such as Indiana and Iowa, are transferring money from their welfare block grant to fund early childhood programs. Federal funding would both accelerate this state-led movement and even out the playing field for children across the country.

2. Provide a more generous (and refundable) tax credit or voucher to lower-income families to be used only in accredited preschool facilities. A tax credit would combine the federal support for education that liberals have supported with the parental choice and competition among providers that conservatives like. Unlike the first option, however, this one doesn’t allow much scope for the investments in provider training and infrastructure that many experts believe are necessary and, in the absence of school choice, makes it more difficult to use the public schools as providers.

3. Build on the existing system. For example, the federally funded Head Start program could be expanded to serve all poor and near-poor children for at least two years. Head Start’s part-day, part-year schedule should be extended to meet the needs of working parents. The current program serves less than half of all eligible poor children, most in part-day programs for one year, typically at age 4. Moreover, as educational historian Diane Ravitch has argued, Head Start lacks a strong educational component. In recent years, middle class and affluent families have enrolled their children in preschool programs in record numbers; twice as many 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled among families with incomes above $75,000 as among families with incomes below $10,000. Although the original intent of the program was to give children from poor families a “head start,” they are no longer getting one.

All of these options, if done right, would be expensive. For example, a high-quality, two-year program with full subsidies for families earning up to $30,000 could cost as much as $30 billion annually—about $18 billion more than we are currently spending at the federal level. Politics will always argue for serving more children at a lower cost per child. But in the end this politically satisfying strategy is likely to be self-defeating because inexpensive programs are usually ineffective as well. The lesson from decades of research is that with limited resources, it is better to provide fewer children a quality program that promises to improve their school performance and later success than to spread the money more broadly. Recent budget debates have emphasized the importance of using the $2.6 trillion in projected federal budget surpluses to “save” Social Security. But an investment in people, especially in young children, has as large or larger a payoff as investing in tangible capital. Rates of return to education have risen sharply since the late 1970s, and evaluations of early childhood programs suggest that they actually save the taxpayer money over the long haul.

Making today’s children more productive and better able to use emerging technologies can create a much stronger economy than investing all of our resources in financial capital. Yet we are spending a tiny fraction of total federal resources on children under the age of five, a commitment that is likely to wane further given tight budget caps on discretionary spending. If we want to prepare for the retirement of the baby boom generation, we must not only save more both individually and collectively – we must invest more in the only people who will be around to pay the costs of that retirement: today’s young children.